CHAMPIONS
Arnold Palmer: Everyman, Superman, USGA Member September 29, 2016 | FAR HILLS, N.J. By David Chmiel, USGA

Arnold Palmer never disappointed 'Arnie's Army,' the fans who followed him faithfully for 60 years. (Courtesy/USGA)

His knock-kneed, pigeon-toed stance would never be found in a primer on classic putting style. The barely controlled mayhem of his golf swing, full of homemade confidence, was hardened by constant practice and steely resolve.

His father, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, worked with his hands. He helped build Latrobe Country Club’s original nine holes, eventually becoming greenkeeper in 1926 and greenkeeper/head pro in 1932. His family lived off the sixth hole, but the Palmers were workers, not members.

The oldest son of the household, Arnold, got right to work, as well. He caddied, cut grass and helped build the second nine. He worked in the pro shop. He played with the caddies and worked on his game when everyone else had gone home. He worked for the men and women who belonged to Latrobe Country Club, which helped him fine-tune the natural “do unto others” sensibility he inherited from his mother, Doris.

That’s why golf mattered. The ball and club didn’t know your station in life. The Rules applied to everyone. Etiquette, above all else, created order. He knew the right thing to do, always, and pledged never to forget it when he became successful and was on the other side of the bag.

Success, and tragedy, surely did come.  From high school state championships to starring for Wake Forest University; from the death of his dear friend, Bud Worsham, to the 1954 U.S. Amateur, which propelled young Arnold, then a reluctant paint salesman, to give professional golf a whirl.

His accomplishments are many: Seven major titles, including the 1960 U.S. Open; 62 wins on the PGA Tour – 95 total professional wins – and 10 more on the PGA Tour Champions, including the 1981 U.S. Senior Open. He is one of only two players to win the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Senior Open, along with Jack Nicklaus. But it was how Palmer won, how he looked, and what he meant to an “Army” he would lead for more than 50 years.

He had Popeye’s forearms, MGM’s leading-man looks, Deacon’s work ethic, Doris’ charm. But most of all, he had the indescribable “it” that the new medium of television lassoed and rode for five decades. In glorious victory or spectacular losses, Arnold was always Arnold and the world swooned. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. He was golf, for everyone.

 

 

Palmer, hoisting the trophy after winning the 1981 U.S. Senior Open, was always a gracious champion. (Courtesy/USGA)

 

He was the first player to earn $1 million in a season. He got his pilot’s license and flew to tournaments in his own plane. He became the leader in the clubhouse, a leader on Madison Avenue. He was Elvis, John Wayne and Warren Buffett, all rolled into one. He changed the way athletes made connections – and made money. He built his beloved Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., and designed more than 200 golf courses around the world, giving golfers a chance to have a little bit of Arnold in their backyards.

He bought Latrobe Country Club; not as a trophy, but as a home base. He and Winnie, his wife of 45 years, lived there and raised their daughters, Amy and Peggy. He invented a drink. He founded the Golf Channel, for Pete’s sake.

These things made him a mythical figure, but they didn’t necessarily make him who he was. He was a kid from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a man who never let soaring accomplishments compromise the most important lesson he’d learned at home: Say what you mean, do what you say.

I will wrap my own grips, thank you. I will save every gift anyone sent me. I will sign all autographs in a gold-star hand that made each recipient remember the moment for the rest of their lives. He was completely comfortable in his own skin. He may have become “The King,” but he made everyone feel he was no different than any of us. But as a king who never made anyone feel like a subject, he was most certainly different than all of us.

When he was approached by the USGA’s Elbert Jamieson to become the first – and only – Volunteer National Chairman of the newly formed Associates Program, Palmer accepted and went straight to the White House, making President Gerald R. Ford the first USGA associate. Now nearly 700,000 strong, the USGA Members Program is a testament to Palmer and the men, women and children who remain passionately committed to celebrating and preserving golf’s spirit and traditions.  

In 2005, the USGA honored Palmer’s legacy when it renovated its museum at its Far Hills, N.J., headquarters. Palmer attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, the world’s premier center of golf artifacts and memorabilia. A room is dedicated to Palmer, featuring many artifacts from his hall-of-fame career, including the visor he tossed into the gallery after winning the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club.

He entered every room with a single purpose, to give you a little piece of him. He gave whatever you needed – a wink, a sly smile, a joking aside, a pat on the back, that low whistle of approval or a genteel reminder of how things should be done. He knew his hands – Deacon’s hands, like catcher’s mitts – were made for a few things: a warm, rugged handshake, a heartfelt thumbs-up, and to grip a golf club.

 

Palmer's final U.S. Open appearance, in 1994 at Oakmont, captured his love affair with golf fans around the world. (USGA/Robert Walker)

At 87, he couldn’t be Arnold Palmer any more. We knew he couldn’t live forever. We just wished he would. But we are the people he loved, we are golfers. We can repay him by playing fair, by encouraging others, by making golf matter.

David Chmiel is manager of member content for the USGA. Email him at dchmiel@usga.org.