Member of rank, file says ‘goobye’
The roar startled me. And I was only about a short par-3 away from it.
It was 1994 during the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa. The last PGA — the one major championship he never won — for The King.
He was nowhere near being in contention. At 65, he was past his prime.
But when he Arnold Palmer stuck his third shot on the longest — it’s 560 yards! —par-4 on the course, the crowd erupted.
I saw the shot from the fairway and hustled up to see the commotion.
Sadly, he missed the par putt.
More sadly, he died this week at age 87.
I did not care.
From the time I was not overly involved in golf, I loved Arnold Palmer. I considered myself a high-ranking officer in Arnie’s Army.
I vowed that day I would see him do something spectacular on Friday, which we all knew would be his last competitive round in a PGA Championship.
After all, I’d been secretly following him for decades.
I truly got into golf while in college. But long before that I was a member of the Army.
To this day, I continue to harbor resentment against Jack Nicklaus because, at the height of Arnie’s career, he dared to come along and steal the spotlight.
To this day, I still refer to him as “Fat Jack,” even though I marvel at his accomplishments on the golf course.
He won 18 major championships to Arnie’s seven.
Golf writer Tom Callahan once described the difference between Nicklaus and Palmer this way: “It’s as though God said to Nicklaus, ‘You will have skills like no other,’ then whispered to Palmer, ‘But they will love you more.’”
I love him more. Wildly more.
The thing about Arnie’s seven was that he won them all during an eight-year span. At precisely the time television had latched onto golf and vice versa.
Said Fat Jack: “Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend.
“Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans — Barbara and I among them.
“We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed.
“He was the king of our sport and always will be.”
“The king of our sport,” said the man many consider to be the king.
They were wildly different, those two. Palmer came from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania, where his father was a greenskeeper turned into a golf pro.
Nicklaus, the son of a pharmacist, lived more of a country club life.
“The reverse ‘C’ of the Golden Bear! The steel workers’ power and brawn of Carl Sandburg’s. Arnold Palmer!”
So said Roy McAvoy during his first encounter with Dr. Molly Griswold.
Yes. I am stealing lines and activities from “Tin Cup,” one of the great golfing movies of all time.
Arnie would be proud.
Palmer’s social impact on behalf of golf was perhaps unrivaled among fellow professionals. His humble background and plain-spoken popularity helped change the perception of golf as an elite, upper-class pastime to a more populist sport accessible to middle and working classes.
Palmer was part of “The Big Three” in golf during the 1960s, along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. They are credited with popularizing and commercializing the sport around the world.
It was Palmer Mark McCormack in 1960 signed as his first client. McCormack sited Palmer’s good looks, modest background and swash-buckling style of play — who hasn’t seen him flick away a cigarette before hitting a four-iron off a hardpan lie? — when he first signed him.
He wore his emotions on his shirt sleeves.
No wonder I adored him so.
He made it vogue for American professional players to fly to Europe for The Open Championship.
Palmer convinced McCormick success in the Open — he won it twice — would make him a global sporting star and not just a leading American golfer.
He certainly was to me.
I had a newspaper photo of the crowd behind him moaning after Palmer had missed a putt during a round in some U.S. Open.
Palmer, in front of his Army, cringed.
The picture was a treasured thing for me. It remained on the wall of my bedroom for years.
So in 1994, I found my chance to intrude.
I followed him most of his back nine at Southern Hills. I made sure I knew where he stood and how many holes he had left to play.
As a member of the press, I was inside the ropes when he finished his round.
Sixteen, where he hit the fabulous shot the day before. Seventeen, a short par-4 that fit him well in his younger days.
And then 18. The most difficult par — some would argue No. 12 — on the golf course.
Palmer needed three to reach the green. He faced a twisting, slick, downhill 20-foot putt for par.
Again, he made the crowd go wild.
I was right there, inside the ropes. By chance, our eyes met. He smiled at me.
I melted dead in my tracks.
Palmer rushed toward his car but remembered he had failed to tip Otis Gateway, Southern Hills’ long-time locker room attendant.
Amazingly, he went back.
Meaning he had to again face the Army, waiting for his autograph.
I was among them.
Again, he smiled at me.
But this time, I had the courage to speak to him. We chatted for three minutes that seemed like 45. He was as genial as anyone could be.
I beamed the rest of my day at Southern Hills.
So long, King. Thanks for letting me be a part of your Army.