“Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
Like millions of golf fans, I watched the ceremonial first tee shots at The Masters this year. It made me sad. As expected CBS showed those images again just after coming on the air Saturday and Sunday. It made me sad again.
I am a Beatles not a Stones guy. I prefer Coke to Pepsi. For me it always was, and always will be, Arnold Palmer over Jack Nicklaus.
Arnold Palmer first went to Augusta in 1955 as the reigning United States Amateur Champion. It was a happy time for him, a happy time for golf. It hurt my heart watching him watch Jack and Gary Player hit tee shots to start this Masters on Thursday morning. It isn’t hard to imagine Arnold Palmer may not make it back to those hallowed golf grounds. But in between then and now the great Arnold Palmer won that tournament 4 times and owned it until Tiger came along in 1997. You could make an argument he still owned it after that.
He was my sports hero.
My parents, who were avid golfers, used to joke that Arnold Palmer was the only man my mother would have left my father for. The punchline was my dad would have been okay with it. Millions of women felt like her, millions of men, like him.
I saw Mr. Palmer in person for the first time when he came to my hometown of Reno, NV for an exhibition. He was cool on TV but that couldn’t come close to what he was like in person. Like many in my generation I wanted to be him but knew that was impossible. So we all did the next best thing: we fell in love with the game he lived for. I have already written (both in this space and in my book) about the greatness, on and off the golf course, of Arnold Palmer. He will never be the guy who won the most tournaments, the most majors or the most money. He will ALWAYS be the player who won and kept the most hearts.
Years after following him, I covered him thanks to my job in television. Then I worked with him, for him, and alongside him, for many years at The Golf Channel. He was always kind and gracious. Always. I was always respectful and reverent and in awe. It was an honor to be in his inner circle, even just for a short period of time. I was never worthy and he was never phony, not about anything. In the coming days, weeks, months, and everyone hopes still years to come, we will hear a lot about “The King”. What we aren’t likely to hear is that he never warmed to that nickname. He said so on several occasions and wrote about it on page 397 of his book, A Golfer’s Life.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, something I’ve admitted to a handful of folks. I never cared for the nickname “The King.” At times it makes me uncomfortable and even a bit irritated. There is no king of golf. Never has been, never will be.”
Arnold Palmer knew how important golf fans in general, and his fans in particular, were to the sport. He wasn’t “better” than them, he was one of them. For Mr. Palmer it was never, ever about him. It was always, every second, about the game of golf.
The day Arnold Palmer takes his last breath, and for many days after, we will all be inundated with “personal stories” about the great man from every person who had even the remotest of connections with the game of golf. Some will be true, many will be exaggerated, but all will be heartfelt. He engendered that in people. One thing that will be absolute is that he made an impression on everyone he met. He also made an incredibly positive impression on the people who never had the pleasure of spending one single second with him. They watched him, they roared for him, they loved him and the best part was he honestly, unabashedly loved them back.
Oscar Wilde once said “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” Arnold Palmer LIVED and when he dies it will be a sad day around the globe, a melancholy day in American sports and a heartbreaking day in the world of golf.
I am one of the lucky ones. I was not only fortunate enough to grow up in the era when Arnold Palmer competed but through serendipity I actually knew him and was honored by the fact that he knew me. I am 60 years old and at that age where my sports heroes will start to leave this earth. It will be Arnie, it will be Ali, it will be Willie, it will be more. It sucks but it’s life