Golf was pretty much an after-thought in the United States until a guy named Arnold Palmer started winning The Masters every other year beginning in 1958.
That’s when golf started becoming cool — and it was because Arnold Palmer was the coolest guy around. Good looks, charisma, flair and most of all, he was an everyman. He came from humble beginnings and never forgot that.
The first time I saw Arnold Palmer in person was at the Greater Greensboro Open on Saturday, April 6, 1968. Remember it like yesterday — my college roommate and I hitch-hiked to Greensboro on Friday, April 5 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a huge risk considering the racial tension that followed that fateful Thursday. We were sophomores at East Carolina University — too young to know better. By the grace of God we made it, made it to the GGO and watched Arnold Palmer. As fate would have it, there we were on the front page of the Greensboro Sunday paper — page one. Little did I know that one day my stories would be on page one of a major metro daily.
Fast forward 11 years later and I was covering sports for the Tampa Tribune — well into my seventh season. I was a veteran at age 28. I covered the FSU Seminoles with Coach Bobby Bowden bringing that program from nowhere to the national limelight. And 1979 was a great year to be the golf writer as well — it was the first year that the PGA Tour went to Arnold’s Bay Hill Club just west of downtown Orlando.
Is already knew Arnold from other events I covered. He liked the golf writers — he made us feel like he was one of us. He’d have a beer with you, he’d laugh, he was one of a kind.
Bay Hill meant even more time around Arnold. I couldn’t wait.
Got there early — Tuesday. Early in the week was a great time to catch up with the players — they were pretty much at ease. Arnold was always at ease. Ran into him late in the afternoon.
“Hey, congratulations!” Palmer said before I could even say hello and shake his hand. He shook mine first. You never forget a handshake from Arnold — he always looked you square in the eyes and smiled. “For what?” I asked him. “You won the press tournament,” Arnold answered. Seriously, Arnold checked the results from the Bay Hill press tournament that was held a month before? Yeah, I outplayed a bunch of press hacks, no big deal but it was suddenly a big deal when Arnold knew you won.
But that was Palmer. He paid attention to every detail of his event. It would become one of the best stops on the PGA Tour — Bay Hill was a great track and it was Arnold’s track. I remember that first year when I went to the IMG Hospitality tent. Arnold and I drank a cold Rolling Rock and toasted our birthdays — his was September 25th, the day after mine. “Great players born in September,” I said, kidding. Arnold looked at me and smiled — “At least one great one,” I told him.
That was the cool thing about Arnold. He never acted like a celebrity. Down to earth was his dwelling place and it’s one of the many reasons why he was so beloved.
I can’t even begin to guess how many autographs he signed in his lifetime. Millions. People would send him pictures at his office at Bay Hill and Latrobe, most wouldn’t include a return envelope. Palmer made sure they were returned, signed. He’d pay for the big envelope and the postage. Arnold probably spend north of $100,000 sending those pictures back to people.
And that signature — the best in sports.
Yes, it seems like yesterday.
But Arnold is gone and that young writer isn’t young any more.
But Arnold lives on. He always will. He was and still is “The King.”
And this week’s AP Invitational at Bay Hill is his living legacy.