A Six Decade Walk with A King
By (Rev.) Robert Holet
As the Sports World grieves the loss of Arnold Palmer, affectionately known as 'The King', so do millions of golfers, golf watchers, children healed of childhood diseases, and people around the world, who lost an ambassador of goodness and grace with his passing.For there is a grace of elegance and beauty, but there is another type of grace which is down-to-earth and people-centric where a man becomes who he is meant to be as a fellow 'lover of mankind.' [i]
The stories rush forth during this time following his death, from those who knew him or who were touched by Arnie. Some are inspired by his go-for-it attitude that typified the American spirit of the 1960s (and outlived the turmoil of that decade), or encouraged by watching a man fall short again and again in his goals, but always putting forth his best effort, and most importantly, carrying forth in defeat with the utmost dignity in public, while being devastated inside. He was the epitome of what used to be called a 'sportsman' - in a time when 'The American Sportsman' was an ideal to which many young American boys aspired, so much so that the title was taken as a popular sporting television show of the era. Because he held every individual in respect, he earned everyone's respect, and he would always be called "Mr. Palmer", in person, despite the fact that everybody had his first name on their lips whenever they saw him.The stories are countless of how he would wait that extra moment so that a young child could be duly greeted or an aspiring golfer encouraged to greatness in his quest for golfing excellence
The Army's March
I was one of the many who followed his exploits - as we were blessed to have a TV in the 1960s.Growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, scarcely 40 miles from Palmer's hometown of Latrobe, we all felt like he represented us little guys in the wide world of sports.He punched our ticket for admittance into a game where affluence was a necessary for preadmission and where we could at least watch or even aspire to participate.So, one of the few sports I would venture to try in my youth was golf, where even with a few old clubs and a used ball, we could pretend, and dream, that we belonged out there.
I would like to say that I was a friend of Mr. Palmer in person, but I cannot.But I was certainly a longtime fan of his sports prowess and more, an admirer of his character.His heyday began the year I was born in 1954, when he won the US Amateur championship.But his real fame arose with his rise to golf stardom when he emerged as a major championship winner of the 1958 Masters Championship - just as the era television (in black and white format) was getting underway.The rise of golf on Sunday television mirrored the ascent of Palmer on the golf leaderboard and in the awareness of the public. As Arnie's Army marched with the King through sixty two tournament wins, after a while it mattered less and less whether he actually won or notThe important thing was to be a part of the scene.
Ironically, one of the highlights of my golfing 'career' was the opportunity to experience the 'other side' of the golfing world, where the superintendent of the massive US Steel's massive Clairton Coke plant where I worked as an lowly management trainee, kindly extended to me a personal invitation to join him to play a round at prestigious Ligonier Valley Country Club, in Arnie's backyard.Ligonier Valley was 'on my map' because they hosted the PGA championship a few years before - and that tournament had been a coming out party for the locals for Arnie.While my front nine was quite memorable (scoring better than my handicap), my back nine was a mirror of a Palmer collapse.Given the dignity of the venue, I had to summon far more restraint of my anger and disappointment in the moment, but I had seen the King reduced to pauper status again and again.Somehow, even I could accept the failure in that moment, so the memory remained nonetheless a rich one.A lesson had been learned.
I still have a grainy picture from the newspaper of Palmer tossing his hat in victory in the Bob Hope tournament in 1972 would grace my bulletin board in my college dorm room and for years after.After about 18 years of winning on the PGA Tour, he wouldn't win again - but he got Oh So Close.In his latter years on the tour, this was the essential charm of the story, as he became the aging underdog for whom fans would root, hope and groan as things would slip away due to his frailties or errors, the excellence of younger competitors like Nicklaus and Watson, or the vagaries of the forces of nature that would steer his little white sphere awry at the wrong moment.Palmer would shake his head, but maintain his composure.Hope would spring eternal.
But the Army still hoped, and so, one of my best decisions as a young man in 1983 was to bypassthe humdrum of an afternoon session of a less-than-memorable clergy gathering in Pittsburgh, to skip off solo to the opening round of the US Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh.Again, this was in Arnie's backyard, and I will forever remember my moment of arrival at the course mid-round, having calculated that the third hole would be where Arnie and the Army would be gathering for his charge.So I summoned a brisk march up the hill toward that green.But I was late - and from a couple hundred yards away, I heard, or better, felt the immense rumble of energy that represented a ball heading toward the hole on a Palmer birdie putt that managed to find its way to the bottom of that cup - triggering a thunderous explosion that made the leaves of the majestic trees at Oakmont (which had trees in those days) shiver and shake.It was a profound experience of human energy, rising and swelling like a wave across the hilly landscape and cascading down into the Alleghany Valley below.Arnie had birdied and was 'in the hunt'. I said to myself, "This will be fun" - more fun than I had had in a long time, and indeed, have had since.And of course, the charge was short-lived - as the 'magic' of his charge would again vanish at Oakmont.And again, it didn't matter as the legend only grew.
When I met my wife-to-be Christine, I knew we had a lot in common when I learned that she grew up in Latrobe. This raised my opinion of her by major points! Her family even bought cars from Arnold Palmer Motors no less, a par four or so away from entrance to Latrobe Country Club.Other friends from the area knew the Latrobe airport well, where the King had not only an Army but an Air Force, and he personally flew his jet to tournaments, publicity events and charitable venues for decades.His arrival would be celebrated, as he was a celebrity, but the people of Latrobe never seemed to fawn over him, allowing him to live in the area relatively normally, as far as I could tell.It was like the Latrobe Country Club was a place of reserve and respect, and needed to remain so. This would not be Neverland Ranch or Graceland.The difference? Arnold Palmer evoked class.Though certainly a sinner, there was no 'social dark side' to him (social ills like drugs, adultery, etc.), at least publicly, let alone celebrated as with so many 'stars' today.
Army in Reserve
Like most fans, many of our experiences of Palmer's exploits would manifest themselves only through the magic of television.As his playing career on the PGA wound down, there was a 'farewell tour' with Palmer playing (at times rather well) but making that final walk up the eighteenth fairway receiving thunderous applause for the hundred yard 'final march', at the Masters, the British Open and most notably, the US Open in 1994 again at Oakmont.The tears were not just those in his joyous eyes, but his eyes reflected the faces of thousands whose watched and applauded in person or from afar.The tributes of announcers and commentators always fell short - and they knew it, so after a while a major shift took place in the TV world, the announcers just learned to shut up in the face of such moments.Would that we all could learn that lesson a little better.
As golf grew and expanded, so also did the opportunities for the greats like Palmer to try new ventures - developing everything from new brands and products to more golf-related efforts like designing new courses.So when my brother Bill and I headed for our first golf outing in Myrtle Beach in the mid-1980s, the 'early days' when Myrtle had not yet become a prime destination for golf, we had to tee it up at the Bay Tree Club which Palmer designed and developed.Sadly, this course has not been maintained and today it is overgrown - a sign of the passage of the decades, and of life itself. But whenever I trek back to Myrtle and go past Bay Tree I remember the less-than memorable round of 36 holes played in a cold rain that day.
Today, I'm sure the Palmer umbrella logo will remain firmly placed in the golf shops around the country - and maybe there will even be a resurgence in the brand for a while.But like all things of this earth, and like Bay Tree, it too will fade - for rare is the personage whose legacy remains so long, and survives much past his death. Many will raise their glass of the refreshing concoction of iced tea and lemonade named after Palmer, for years to come. I suspect that Arnie's legacy will be there for quite a while, as his personal contact with so many was so rich, and sustained by his philanthropic forays, especially in support of children's health.
Despite many a successful business venture, and wealth that opened many doors internationally, Palmer would always remain rooted in game of golf, and in Latrobe. As the Senior Tour was developed, his presence would again make it a success, drawing fans to these lesser events and giving them stature.His play was far from its earlier greatness but among the seniors he would win again, frequently.He again came and he conquered - but over time he would again begin losing the battle on the golf course but winning the war of human affection and respect among fans.
And so, in September 2006,when I noticed an obscure newspaper ad about a Senior (Champions) tour event to be held in Baltimore in which Arnie was thought to have entered, I duly notified Bill and we re-enlisted in the Army for one last muster. I think he entered this tournament more as a personal gesture and thank you to a colleague and business friend at Constellation Energy, the sponsor, and he had played almost no competitive golf in the prior few years. For the fans, it would be the final stop on the farewell tour as his final rounds of tournament play. The weather was deteriorating and demoralizing, and the thought going up was that Palmer, now in his upper 70s, would probably withdraw given the cool and even harsh rainy, windy weather.Still we trekked the 3 hours or so to take a chance to see what was happening.With the delays of traffic and buses trying to navigate the muddy parking areas, we were delayed.And for me it was a replay of 1983, as Arnie was indeed was playing and the group was at the third hole, I believe.We elbowed our way to get a look and Palmer who had hit it into a greenside bunker with no green to work with - looking at bogey or worse.Somehow he hit a magnificent sand shot, and scrambled for par. A roar went up! I thought to myself again, "This is going to be fun!"
Arnie would consistently be outdriven by the young bucks in their 50s by thirty or forty yards, but would manage somehow to 'hang in there'.The fear in such situations is that the King would be found to have no clothes, yet that's not what true class does - and despite some agonizing shots and a less than flattering final score, he again showed what he was made of.I think it was on the sixth hole that I sauntered down to the gallery ropes near the green and greeted the King, and his Queen.His wife Kathleen (Kit), was faithfully following as part of the gallery. (After the death of his first wife Winnie, Arnie had remarried - and Arnie found another winner as a life companion). I don't recall what mindless thing I might have mumbled to him (this was a Peter-on-Mount-Tabor moment) but we actually spoke for a minute or two.He made par anyway.
For me, I rarely remember things like rounds of golf - particularly those where I am at the handle end of the club.Yet that round was etched in my mind as Arnie clawed his way through the slop and difficulty of the course to hold his own. Sometimes the biggest victory is in survival. I remember with clarity a number of his shots.Most memorable was a tee shot late in the round which required a carry what looked like 200 yards, and felt like 325 yards in the gloom, against the wind.Somehow the relief was palpable as his drive landed softly and safely over the hazard, and the march could continue.Again it was the small victories that are sometimes most memorable, especially as age creeps in on us.And while the numbers of fans present at his eighteenth hole could not elicit a thunderous applause, the affection and spirit of the moment was nonetheless authentic, palpable and memorable.
Maybe one of the aspects to how Arnold Palmer conducted himself that distinguished him was how he handled celebrity.He struck that rare balance of being able to truly celebrate the moment of victory in the limelight, with a thankful and humble spirit.Once someone is infected with vainglory, its trail of inner destruction is often evident to all - but I never recall seeing that in Mr. Palmer.For that matter, even the Army did not worship him as many sports heroes are fawned over these days.I think his personal dignity dissuaded that, and even the occasional rebuke to an 'overenthusiastic' gallery or regiment of the Army that was disrespectful of his opponent would send a different message. He would teach and inspire, as pro golfer Rocco Mediate would report, the gentle reminder to be a gentleman who was well groomed and always respectful of others.He was that rare personality who had enough inner strength and integrity to be in the spotlight but not need it, nor look for it, but when immersed in it, to give his best to be engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humorous.
Heading to the Clubhouse
As always when a death comes, we have regrets of what might have been.There are many who are sad today. Like probably tens of thousands of others, I had wanted to write him a letter of thanks for the memories.Unlike many of those thousands, I didn't.But I don't feel too bad about it, because he received those tens of thousands of such testimonials (he kept them all filed in an archive at Latrobe). Mine will be a spiritual remembrance, for some time, in prayer and occasionally on the golf course.It might be a moment of silent thanksgiving to the Lord when I'm on the golf course and hitch my pants and try to reach a little more on a drive, finishing with a bit of his corkscrew finish to his swing if my back will permit it.Or maybe when the Lord smiles on me and somehow one of my mishit putts manages to find the bottom of the cup from some impossible distance to the echoing roar of an imaginary crowd. Or maybe in a moment of aging, when something has gone awry or disappointment crushes, and can somehow summon some dignity, or even a smile from within.Or maybe, as like yesterday, on that rare occasion when a young person comes running up to me and I actually take time to look in her face and smile and embrace, and forget whatever it is I was doing that was so important at that moment.In this regard, Arnie's behavior is worth imitating.
I will however, offer my thanks to God for having fashioned Mr. Palmer to be as a sportsman, a gentleman, and a man who truly cared for others. Arnie's Sunday mornings might not have allowed a whole lot of formal church attendance, but in Arnie's words reported by Golf Channel writer Randall Mell[ii], recently, “You just treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s about as simple as I can put it.”
That sounds a lot like the words the Lord spoke, that we call the Golden Rule, which Arnold Palmer put into action for eight decades.So my prayer is, "May the Lord make straight a path as a fair way to heaven for you, and radiate within you that love and joy eternally."
[i] In Orthodox Church services, Christ is often called, 'Lover of Humankind' - 'Philanthropos' in Greek.
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