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Arnold Palmer left an army of true believers

Bucky Gleason

Tributes began racing across the internet in the hours after Arnold Palmer died Sunday, and more are certain to follow during the Ryder Cup this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. Palmer was an ambassador for international golf before he passed away at age 87.

You can imagine how many stories about Palmer will be shared, how his swashbuckling style contradicted his gentleman’s touch, how the golf gods worked against him before he became one. Perhaps the Americans will gain what Palmer lost, his competitive edge, after winning the 1960 U.S. Open.

Palmer had such a long and storied place in the game that it’s difficult to fully comprehend. He led the charge for Americans to embrace the Open Championship and shape the British major you see today. He is the biggest reason golf transformed from a sport for the wealthy and white into a sport for the world.

He touched millions of people along the way. The world changed around him, and his bank account, too, but he never lost his passion for golf or the people who supported him. Think back and ask yourself: Did you ever hear a cross word or read a negative story about Arnold Palmer?

His legion of followers come from everywhere, from Scotty Bowman – “After winning the Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992,” Bowman tweeted Sunday night, “Arnold Palmer sent a congratulatory note to me which I still cherish” – to musician Darius Rucker to President Obama to the Average Joe who crossed his path.

Accolades sounded like lyrics from an old heartwarming song that reached mass audiences and moved individuals. It was the effect Palmer had around the world and across generations. He was a man of the people of his time, Arnie, and gracefully aged into a grandfatherly figure, Mr. Palmer, to the children who followed.

The word “icon” gets tossed around with such ease these days that it has become devalued over time. Only a select few in American sports history have actually met the definition, athletes who transcended demographics, race and eras and seemed larger than life: Jesse Owens, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali.

Arnold Palmer.

He endeared himself to fans who lined the fairways with his homespun persona and rickety swing, using self-deprecating humor to put people at ease after mashing shots into them. He gripped and ripped long before John Daly and suffered the consequences early in his career just the same.

Fans loved watching him play not solely because he won but because he won with their swing and their mentality. He gave up a seven-shot lead and lost the U.S. Open, an epic collapse that many had forgotten. He lost two majors in playoffs. He was on the business end of Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont after leading through 54 holes.

But he lost his way.

Palmer’s supporters formed an army, paupers who united behind The King largely because he never treated them like commoners. Instead, he stepped down from a throne that he never really wanted. Palmer frowned upon people calling him “The King” before eventually giving up.

Take away golf, and he placed himself on the same level with people who were intent on making a good living, knowing he was fortunate to earn a paycheck doing something he loved. With so many self-absorbed, entitled athletes these days, Palmer was an example of professionals who should be treasured.

He carried himself in a simple manner and dominated without the robotic, textbook swing that has been polished by country-club professionals. He was a self-made player who fooled his legion of supporters into thinking the biggest difference between his game and theirs came down to consistency.

Almost everyone who has played golf has experienced one shot that keeps them coming back while dismissing the other 99. Palmer gave hackers hope. If they could turn their best shot into most shots, like he did, then maybe they, too, could compete on a respectable level.

If his success in golf was the bait that lured people into his world, his kind soul and charisma set the hook. He transformed from a simple man to a commercial brand who carried his sport to unprecedented heights. Television revealed his dignity and class to millions of people watching in black-and-white from their living rooms.

Palmer made an estimated $350 million in endorsements, golf-related enterprises and other enterprises. He made a small fraction in golf while helping to build purses that escalated as the sport gained popularity.

Looking for a Buffalo connection? He led a management company that sold Brierwood, Fox Valley and Tan Tara country clubs for $25 million in 2005. After mixing iced tea and lemonade, he sold the Arnold Palmer to a soft drink company.

But the best part about Palmer was that people never felt like they were getting played. He was no snake-oil salesman.

For years, he was a motor oil salesman, the face of Pennzoil. It was easy for consumers to envision him underneath his car back in Latrobe, Pa., refusing to pay someone to change the oil when he could handle the job himself. If only there was a way to have a hammock made from his calm, reassuring voice.

Palmer was a fixture in American living rooms for decades without overstaying his welcome. He gave back to the people who invested in him, opening a hospital in Florida named after him and his first wife, donating millions of dollars to children’s causes and never forgetting about the people back home.

He came with a gentle touch, but he had the strong hands of a bricklayer and a competitive fire within. He was not the best golfer in history and may not break the top five. Palmer’s 62 career victories are fifth all-time, and his seven majors are tied for seventh. He wasn’t a saint.

Trusting the stories about him are true, he forever held a grudge against Ben Hogan for insulting him early in his career. He was haunted by failure, including his inability to win the PGA Championship for the career Grand Slam. In the eyes of people, his shortcomings merely made him more human.

Palmer’s ability to connect with people was his greatest gift. He continued reaching them long after winning the ’64 Masters for his last major victory. Years later, he admitted that he lost his will to compete. Still, he was the main attraction when the Champions Tour started for the over-50 set.

All would agree he did more for than the game than anybody. No matter who wins the Ryder Cup this week, his death will inspire both teams to celebrate his life.


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