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Arnold Palmer: 1929-2016

September 26th, 2016 · No Comments · Golf

Arnold Palmer was the most remote-in-plain-sight great sports figure of the 20th century. Not in a bad way. He was accessible and friendly and eternally polite, but I never felt as I had any real idea what he was about.

Palmer died on Sunday at the age of 87. Which means he was younger than Vin Scully, which seems astonishing, given that Vinny remains a public figure of great daily significance — and was throughout the 30 years during which Palmer seemed like a figure from a distant era.

The reality concerning Palmer was that his biggest successes were over by 1965. He remained a revered figure, and a popular one, but Jack Nicklaus had come to prominence by the middle of the 1960s, and it was pretty clear he was the better golfer, if not the more popular one.

(I vaguely remember the era in which golf fans, who overwhelming wanted Palmer to win any event he played, derisively called Nicklaus “Fat Jack”. Fans eventually came around on Nicklaus.)

Golf metrics (and who knew the advanced-statistics crowd would bother with golf?) seem to suggest Palmer was the third-greatest golfer to swing a club. After Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Which seems about right, though some would make a case that Palmer should be behind Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson, as well.

Seven major championships, 62 PGA Tour victories, the face of the game for a long time, the game he had pretty much by himself dragged into prominence in the 1960s with his aggressive style — which gives him bonus points in the “how important was he?” side of this.

I put golf news in my sports sections for three decades but I did not cover the game particularly often and I never had a one-on-one with Arnie. However, I was around the game enough to see how important he was to fans of a certain age.

I covered the Masters in 1980 and the Augusta National crowd treated Palmer like he was the greatest celebrity in the world. I imagine it didn’t hurt that Arnie helped everybody in golf make a lot more money than they did before he joined the tour.

Even in 1980, “Arnie’s Army” hoped he would somehow rise up and win something big in the twilight of his career, but his last major victory was in 1964, and he never did get the PGA Championship on his resume, his last best chance coming in 1970, when he finished second to Dave Stockton, the golfer from San Bernardino, California, whom I knew fairly well.

I believe the key to Palmer’s lasting popularity was his ability to keep his private life from his public life. (Not that he had anything to hide, to our knowledge … because most of us had no idea what he did after he finished a tournament, aside from fly his plane.) Apparently because he had the good sense not to share every single thought that popped into his head, which was par for the course in the 1950s and something we could stand a bit more of, in the 21st century.

He always had opinions about golf, many of them quite interesting, and would state them when asked, and he may have done more press conferences than any man in the history of the world.

But even after living through a couple of eras in which accepted norms in American culture shifted at least twice (the late 1960s, and the past 10 years), he was not known for much of anything controversial.

If we do a web search for “Palmer controversy”, nearly all the returns are about a ruling that helped him win his first Masters, in 1958.

Nothing there about ridiculous things said, or away-from-the-course bad behavior. He was always avuncular, steady Arnold Palmer, who wore his fame with ease and never came within 7,000 yards of the sort of major meltdown experienced by, say, Tiger.

It occurs to me that he was a product of an era when many athletes actually made an effort to live the lives of model citizens. Also, back then, a person didn’t spill the beans on friends. Think of major public figures from the pre-1960 period, and we often didn’t know much of anything surprising or, certainly, disagreeable about them until much later.

Most Americans had no idea President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not have the use of his legs — a reality the political world as well asĀ  journalists did not think the public really needed to know. Seems unbelievable, now, but not knowing things of that sort of significance happened all the time, back when.

Palmer seemed to have a clear idea where the borders for good versus bad behavior were and how to interact with fans — and avoid false friends who might damage him.

For all we know, there was little or nothing that he would have wanted to hide.

He was always Arnie, the guy who introduced middle-class America to golf, was always upbeat, never made the wrong sort of headlines and was a guy I shared six decades with but can’t say I really know much about.



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