It was August 1994 in Tulsa, Okla., and golf legend Arnold Palmer, who died last Sunday at the age of 87, had just played his last round ever at the PGA Championship – his 37th appearance in that event as a competitor and my first as a sports broadcaster.
I was among the gaggle of media members surrounding Palmer on that Friday afternoon at Southern Hills Country Club, all of us – including Palmer – fully aware that he had not played well enough to make the cut and advance to the weekend.
Two months before, Palmer had openly wept as he spoke to the press upon his completion of what he knew would be his final U.S. Open round at Oakmont Country Club, not far from his hometown of Latrobe, Penn. The scene at Southern Hills wasn’t as emotional.
Except for me. I’d grown up like so many other young sports fans idolizing Palmer even though I was only 3 years old when he won the last of his 62 titles. His legend was born from a swashbuckling style that produced seven major championships and seemingly 70-times-seven heartbreaks in the biggest events during those early days of televised golf. And that legend quickly crossed far beyond the boundaries of his sport into a pioneering career as a sports-celebrity pitchman because of his preternatural ability to connect with his legion of fans which became known as “Arnie’s Army.”
He was the first golfer to just as easily navigate Madison Avenue as Magnolia Lane, the famed entryway into Augusta National Golf Club, the home of The Masters tournament where Palmer frequently intersected with other alumni and friends of Abilene Christian University, including Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson (’83) and Lance Barrow (’77), coordinating producer of golf for CBS Sports and one of only two men to produce The Masters telecasts.
“He was golf’s first TV star,” says Barrow. “The cameras loved Arnold, and being in the spotlight was never a burden to him. He knew it was part of his job.”
As a four-time winner of The Masters, Palmer shared some sacred space at Augusta National with former ACU trustee Byron Nelson, who won it in 1937 and 1942. In a foreword to Nelson’s book How I Played the Game, Palmer wrote:
“I have no way of knowing who decided who would share a locker with whom … but nothing has ever pleased me more than when I walked into that new Champions Room upstairs in the main clubhouse and saw two plates on one of the lockers, one bearing my name and the other that of Byron Nelson. It would certainly have been my choice if I had been asked, because Byron Nelson was an idol of mine long before I met that wonderful gentleman and magnificent player.”
And later in that foreword:
“Here has always been a man of the highest personal standards, a man we in golf can hold up as the epitome of a true golf champion.”
Palmer had a chance to show his appreciation to Nelson in a tangible way. Nelson writes in his book that organizers of the Dallas Open in 1967 asked him to contact Palmer to convince him to play in that year’s tournament. Nelson did, and Palmer said yes.
“The next two days, after it was announced that Palmer would play,” Nelson wrote, “they sold 5,000 tickets. It showed what a difference a big name like Palmer’s could make.”
The next year, organizers put Nelson’s name on the tournament, changing it to the Byron Nelson Golf Classic and making that event the first to be named for a golfer. Palmer would later have his name on a tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla.
The 2011 playing of that event is where ACU golfer Alex Carpenter (’13) first met Palmer. Given an exemption because of his victory at the prestigious Southern Amateur the previous summer, Carpenter struggled in the opening round but rebounded impressively on Friday. He was three under par when he reached Bay Hill’s treacherous 18th hole whose green is protected in front by a large pond.
“I was in the fairway,” remembers Carpenter, the first Wildcat to play in a PGA event while a student. “The pin was back right, and it’s a tough shot. I backed off the shot and looked over by the water and saw Mr. Palmer sitting in his golf cart. I hit one of the best 4-irons I could possibly hit there to about 15 feet. I started walking up the fairway and looked over at him and he gave me a huge thumbs up. I think he knew I was young and it was a big stage for me; and that I was a little nervous and came through and I hit a really good shot. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Carpenter, who won an NCAA record 20 individual titles while at ACU, also played twice in the Palmer Cup, a competition between teams of college stars from the U.S. and those from Great Britain and Ireland. At the inaugural Palmer Cup in 1997, then-ACU head golf coach Vince Jarrett was invited to help run the event and brought along his son, Justin (’01).
“It was a wonderful experience getting to actually meet some of these great young players who would go on to become PGA and European PGA Tour players,” Justin recalls. “But the greatest experience of the whole trip was meeting Palmer. He impressed us with his stories, his love for the game of golf, and most of all, his simplicity of being just an honest and welcoming man. It was pretty intimidating when we got the opportunity to talk to him, but he was very open to us and made us feel at home.”
When he was head coach at Vanderbilt University, current ACU golf coach Tom Shaw met Palmer at a college tournament in Orlando and remembers players receiving a document titled “The Arnold Palmer Legacy.” It included this advice:
- Respect the game: Love the game and honor it with your character
- Play with passion: Make a total effort and never quit
- Never forget: The volunteers and fans who make it possible
- Share your time and talents: Give back to your community
- Your signature is a gift: Make it legible
- Your smile is a gift: Share it often
- Success: Depends less on strength of body than upon strength of mind and character
- Winning: Isn’t everything, but wanting it is!
One of Palmer’s signature characteristics was, in fact, his signature; specifically in that he always wrote it legibly and also implored young players coming out on tour to do the same with their names as a way of honoring those asking for them. That concern for the fans who made him famous is among the reasons Palmer was so beloved.
“Everybody thinks they’re his best friend,” says Barrow whose relationship with Palmer extended beyond the boundaries of player and television producer over the last 20 years. “He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. And whenever I had spent time with him, I thought, ‘If Arnold Palmer could be that way as famous as he is, I have to be a better person.’ ”
Five years after I first met Palmer, the television network he co-founded, Golf Channel, hired me. Typical. I was thrilled just to have been in his company. And wound up in his employ.
In that emotional press conference at the 1994 U.S. Open, Palmer tearfully said, “I won a few tournaments, but I suppose the most important thing is that it (golf) has been as good as it has been to me.”
However good golf was to Arnold Palmer, he was even better to the game.