Monday, September 26, 2016

No figure in a sport was more beloved than Arnold Palmer

By Mike Lupica
September 26, 2016

Image result for arnold palmer jack nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer at the 1964 Masters.

This was last spring, an event at Jack Nicklaus’ Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., not too long before the Masters tournament.

Barbara Nicklaus, Jack’s wife, was introducing a new cookbook, and she and Jack had acted as celebrity chefs for a small gathering of club guests and their friends. Some friends of my wife and I had invited us and near the end of the night, I was talking to Jack about Arnold Palmer. It has been impossible for more than a half-century in America to talk about one without talking about the other. Arnie and Jack. Jack and Arnie.

Once it had been the rivalry to watch and talk about in golf, the kid from Ohio coming along to take on the acknowledged king of the sport, the guy known to the golf world as “The King” — Arnold — and beat him for the first time at the U.S. Open of 1962, and keep beating him on his way to winning 18 major championships and becoming the greatest golfer of them all.

But out of that rivalry came something more important: A deep and lasting and splendid friendship. Now, in the spring of 2016, everybody in Jack’s world and Arnold’s world knew that Arnold was failing, it was no secret any longer, Arnold had barely been visible at his own tournament at Bay Hill, in Orlando.

There was even some question about whether or not Arnold Palmer, 86 then, would make it to the first tee at Augusta with Nicklaus and Gary Player, for the ceremonial opening to another Masters tournament.

“Oh, he’ll be there,” Jack Nicklaus said that night. “I haven’t said this to him, but he’ll be on the first tee if I have to carry him.”
Jack Nicklaus paused and said, “I’m like everybody else, really. I love Arnold Palmer.”
Arnold made it to the first tee for one last Masters, even if he didn’t hit a drive this time. Nicklaus did. Player did. But he was there. And the crowd cheered the way it always had. Jack didn’t have to carry the man who had carried golf out of the 1950s and not just into the ’60s, but the television age as well. If it was the Giants vs. Colts sudden death championship game in 1958 that made pro football a big deal on television in this country, it was Arnold Palmer who did the same for golf. It all started with him, a leading man built for television, a swashbuckling figure who would take a drag on his cigarette and then either do something to win a big tournament, or do something that broke your heart.
“You want to know the secret to my so-called success?” Frank Chirkinian, the legendary producer and director of golf at CBS for what felt like a thousand years, told me one time. “I put the camera on Arnold and left it there.”
Now Arnold Palmer, one of the giants of American sports, leaves us, at the age of 87, his last birthday a couple of weeks ago. Again: He was not the greatest golfer of all time. He won seven majors and Tiger Woods, who would become the king of televised golf in the 1990s the way Arnold was in the 1960s, won twice that many. Palmer never won the PGA to complete the career Grand Slam. And it does not change a thing with him, starting with his place in history. No figure in the history of American sports ever meant more to one sport than Arnold Palmer, deacon’s son, out of Latrobe, Pa. And no figure in a sport was ever loved more than Arnold was.
There is the famous story, told and retold by the great Dan Jenkins, Arnold’s great friend, about the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, in Colorado. Palmer was seven shots off the lead, getting ready to play the final round after having played his morning round already. They still played 36 on the last day of the Open in those days. Palmer was sitting with Jenkins and Bob Drum, who covered Palmer for the old Pittsburgh Press, and had known Palmer since his amateur days in Pennsylvania.
Palmer was talking about the short, par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills, and this is the way Jenkins remembered it:
“If I drive the green and get a birdie or an eagle, I might shoot 65,” Palmer said. “What’ll that do?”
Drum said, “Nothing. You’re too far back.”
“It would give me 280,” Palmer said. “Doesn’t 280 always win the Open?”
“Yeah, when Hogan shoots it,” Drum said.
Arnold drove the green and made birdie and kept making birdies, and Jenkins and Drum ran out to the fifth tee to catch up with him; catch up with a roar from the gallery that always meant Arnie was doing something.
When Palmer saw them, he grinned and said, “Fancy seeing you here.”
He won the Open that day. Several years later he lost a heartbreak Open to Billy Casper that he had won. And never won another major after that. It only made people love him more. You should also know this: How much he loved being Arnold Palmer.
He did not just change golf. He and his agent, Mark McCormack, changed the business culture of professional sports. McCormack grew his representation of Palmer into a giant company named IMG, for the International Management Group. You can make the case that not only did Palmer make a fortune for himself because of his immense popularity, he made several fortunes for the future stars of American sports, and not just in golf; make a case that he was as much a champion at business as he was at golf. Maybe more.
I met him one time, at Bay Hill. I was there to write a piece about him for Esquire magazine, and we finally ended up in his office, Palmer talking about his triumphs and his disasters, being as gracious with me as he was with everybody else, because there was never a more available and accessible American sports celebrity. I don’t know how long we were in that office. Maybe it was an hour. Maybe it was a little more. It was one of the best hours I have ever spent in this business.
And there was a moment, near the end, when he was telling another story, and came around from behind his big desk, and grabbed a driver leaning against a wall, and took his stance, and put those bricklayer’s hands on the club, and it was as if all the years between the two of us and my one childhood disappeared.
A few minutes later we were done. He said, “You good?”
And I said, “You have no idea.”
There have been other star athletes who helped grow other major sports in America. No one ever did more for one than Arnold Palmer did for golf. No one was ever a bigger star. Jack Nicklaus had it right, exactly, and of course. Everybody loved Arnold Palmer. 



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