Yesterday, the golfing world lost a man whom I believe was their greatest icon of all time, destined to become a legend. Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87, after being hospitalized in Pittsburgh for cardiac testing.
Arnie’s career spanned over six decades. His accomplishments were not only extraordinary; they put him at the top of the field for many years. The millions he won in tournaments over those years is dwarfed today, as pro golfers now earn those millions in a single season. Yet, he never begrudged the new talent their rewards. He helped them along.
During the 1962 US Open, it was down to Arnie and Jack Nicklaus playing against each other for the championship. Instead of focusing on his own game, Arnie put his arm around Jack’s shoulder as they headed down the fairway. He told young Jack not to worry, that he could easily birdie the par 5, which he did. Jack went on to beat Arnie for the trophy. Palmer and Nicklaus since became the best of friends and squared off against each other many more times over the years.
George W. Bush awarded Arnold Palmer the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, and Palmer reciprocated by giving the president some golf tips. He has met with several other presidents as well, and he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2012. He was well respected by many politicians on both sides of the aisle. Most recently, he had given Barack Obama some pointers.
Palmer won 62 tournaments, including four Masters, two British Open tournaments, and one US Open. In 1974, He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame but went on to play for many more years in the Senior Golf Association. He appeared as an honorary golfer in the Opens and in the Masters several times in his later years. He was also the honorary starter for the Masters tournament in Augusta, Georgia from 2007 to 2015.
Arnie was loved by many on and off the course. He gave his time and money to dozens of charities and he was always happy to give an interview whether he won or lost. He loved life so much more than golf. He treasured his family the most and loved to spend time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. However, when he was in public, he made himself accessible to anyone who sought an autograph from him. He signed hundreds of autographs every week. He also loved to be out with friends playing cards or even bowling.
Alastair Johnson, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, issued this statement, confirming Palmer’s passing:
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87,” the U.S. Golf Association said in a statement. “Arnold Palmer will always be a champion, in every sense of the word. He inspired generations to love golf by sharing his competitive spirit, displaying sportsmanship, caring for golfers and golf fans, and serving as a lifelong ambassador for the sport. Our stories of him not only fill the pages of golf’s history books and the walls of the museum, but also our own personal golf memories. The game is indeed better because of him, and in so many ways, will never be the same.”
My husband and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Arnold Palmer in 1997. We were heading out to the first hole at Bay Hill where we had gone for an anniversary weekend. Bay Hill is an Arnold Palmer golf course near Orlando, Florida where the Bay Hill classic is played. My husband jokingly said to keep an eye out for Palmer, as he practiced there frequently. Sure enough, he was on the putting green. I had my camera with me and walked over to take a photo. Palmer saw us and graciously waved us up on the green. His caddie took our picture together and shook our hands. It’s one of my prized possessions.
Later, as we were golfing, we saw him watching us from the practice green. I can say that there isn’t much that is more intimidating than having golf’s greatest watch you tee off. I was so thankful just to get the ball in the air, but it was a decent drive. As I pulled my tee from the dirt, I heard clapping and saw that it was Arnold Palmer. Some memories are more precious than gold.