What’s to be said about Arnold Palmer that hasn’t already been chronicled? Nothing, or rather nothing that will be groundbreaking. Simply put, this story only serves to highlight some of my favorite Arnie moments and accomplishments. Things that transformed him into the reliable American icon he is today.
My foolish youth
As a kid growing up in northwest Louisiana, sports were huge. Particularly football, my young life revolved around the game and the fate of the Dallas Cowboys. Some of my later friends in life would lynch me for saying it (geaux Saints!), but I was a Cowboys fan. Landry, Staubach, and Dorsett were just a few of my childhood heroes. I had zero interest in golf until my mid teens. While watching what was probably a Cowboy’s game at roughly 8 years of age, a commercial aired. It was with some guy driving a tractor endorsing Pennzoil. I asked my dad, “who’s that guy?” Dad, “that’s Arnold Palmer, he’s a champion golfer.” Not even sure why, but I remember thinking he was cool. Palmer was the first golfer I’d ever seen on TV, or really anywhere.
Deacon also served as the head professional at Latrobe Country Club. By all accounts, the senior Palmer was a very no-nonsense man. Though Arnold’s personality became larger than life, I like to think his modest upbringing shaped him into the man the masses would one day adore. One of the things that were appealing about Arnold the golfer was the alacrity with which he played the game. In a Golf Channel article, Arnold said about Deacon: “he told me what to do and I did it as fast as I could get it done. That included playing golf.” For that, the entire golfing universe should be thankful. Arnold didn’t really “play” golf, he attacked it with verve and panache.
As Arnold and his game matured, he became one of golf’s biggest hitters. Clearly, he possessed physical gifts we mere humans can only imagine. However, if it weren’t for Deacon admonishing him to “hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again,” he may not have developed the way he did. His powerful lashes at the ball were instilled at an early age, an attribute that aided him in his ascent to golfing legend. You don’t have to be a bomber to be great, but it damn sure doesn’t hurt.
Right guy, right place and time
Television changed the lives of millions of Americans in the ’50s. Once households were able to afford a TV, their leisure time at home took a turn. Instead of just the radio, now images were available to come alive in the comfort of your living room. We all know today that the marriage of sports and TV are a billion dollar enterprise. But all the fat cat execs, team owners, and professional athletes alike should revere Arnie for this. Of course, he was not solely responsible, but his impact can’t be ignored. Arnie turned pro in 1955 while the first nationally televised golf tournament aired in 1953. (thanks Brent Kelley )*
Arnold wasted little time, winning in Canada his first year on tour. 1956 saw CBS air The Masters for the first time, and 2 years later Arnold captured his first green jacket. On TV. If there were ever to be a golfer legions of people could rally behind, it was Arnie. His blue collar everyman persona matched with his rugged good looks were perfect for TV. That and his always attacking devil-may-care brand of golf. Hitching up his constantly sagging pants, taking a drag from his smoke he went for it. Often. Naturally some tournaments would slip away because of his aggressive nature, but I don’t believe he either wanted or knew how to play any different. You don’t get a drink named after you for laying up. Or an Army. He was and remains humble in victory and defeat. You agonized with him in his defeats and celebrated his victories.
Being born in the 70s, I’d never heard of the Hickok Belt. It was an award given to the top professional athlete in all of sports. First given away in 1950, with the last one awarded in 1976. Apparently, it was quite the big deal. For the 1960 presentation, Arnold was a finalist along with other titans of the sports world. This included one Roger Maris, of the New York Yankees. Apparently having imbibed his fair share and liking his chances for winning the award, Maris looked towards Palmer before the presentation asking him, “Are you in this Hickok belt thing? What the f*** are you doing here?” Arnie said nothing. Soon after, the announcer named that year’s winner – Mr. Arnold Palmer. Maris, in close proximity, looked towards Palmer where Arnie casually asked the Yankee’s slugger, “what the f*** are you doing here?” I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that exchange! You can read more about this at usgolftv.com
Long live the King
At 86, Arnold is finally looking old. The guy has been vitality personified for a large part of the last 6 decades. His almost mythical status had me wondering if this would ever happen. But, he’s aged the only way he knows how, with grace and dignity. His charitable work and contributions the world over are second to none. Arnold has been an exemplary role model over the years, along with galvanizing millions of golf fans. In the process, he became the reliable American icon. The old saying, “that’s as American as baseball and apple pie?” I think it should be amended to “as American as baseball, apple pie, and Arnold Palmer.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories and anecdotes about Mr. Arnold Palmer. What are some of your favorites?
As always, thoughts and comments welcomed and appreciated. Thanks for reading!