Arnie – From His Army

Arnie Left A Huge Legacy

I must admit that as I’ve watched Arnold Palmer’s ceremonial appearances, hosting his own tournament or hitting the first ball at the Masters, I have braced myself over the past few years to lose him. Once in a while, a person like that comes along, someone you couldn’t imagine being gone. I felt  that way about Jimmy Stewart and Muhammad Ali, and every bit as much about Arnold Palmer. In the days of the big three, I was a rabid Player fan, but with Arnie I always thought, “How could anyone possibly dislike this guy? He’s so…so everything.”

arnieArnie had the looks of a western movie star out of the old days, definitely a white hat type. He had the physicality of an agressive competitor in the very best sense. He had a charisma that didn’t offend or brutalize, but one that welcomed, embraced, and raised the quality of the environment. Those who believe that the days of demeanor, subtle elegance, self-expression full of charm and empty of self-consciousness are better off gone, should really take a few minutes and do a walk-through of the life, the way of being typified by  Arnold “Arnie” Palmer. He had a swing you could pick out of a million videos without it showing the face. It looked like sheer trouble from the take-away to the follow-through. Mickey Wright thought  it was a visual nightmare, but Arnie was Arnie, and it turned out that he knew what he was doing.

We don’t talk of perfection in any human being, and to do so would be inauthentic. The great ones among us didn’t reach perfection, but part of their greatness is that they pursued it more earnestly than others. So there’s the distinction – not saints, but greats. A man who came from a modest background, in which his father was a greenskeeper, Arnie was unassuming, even at a young age where we tend to splat ourselves all over the environment with ego and big plans. He knew from the beginning that if golf didn’t speak for him, nothing he could say would change a scorecard, so he just let it ride.
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His emergence into the limelight coincided with the advent of television sports, and he became the first superstar golfer for the masses. The young man from Latrobe, Pa. won the Canadian Open to get it going in 1955, and I remember the picture in the paper as though it were yesterday. He walked away with $2,400 that week. In 53 years, he won 1.8 million on the course (which is much bigger than it sounds), and 30 million off of it, with Vardon trophies and the Hall of Fame to boot. He won seven majors, four of them Masters, and it could have been five if he hadn’t gotten friendly with the gallery and lost his concentration on 18.
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Arnie was a pilot who went into aviation because he was afraid to fly. Do I ever empathize with that one. He lost his wife, Winnie, to ovarian cancer, remarrying Kathleen Gawthrop in 2005. He was a Freemason. He developed a fan base so passionate and confident that it morphed into what television dubbed “Arnie’s Army.” We didn’t know about anything such as the famous “charges” he would make, suddenly catching fire and roaring back from the rear of the pack. If there was any darkness in Arnie’s inner personality, he was so professional as to let none of us see it. He was good to and for the game. Meeting him as a stranger, one might never have suspected his wealth or enormous achievements. Competitive? Absolutely – to a fault, but deeply human, the way you’d want a human to be. Among the people who loved and valued Arnie were the other greats as well as a sea of both amateur nd non-golfers.

Yes, I braced myself to lose Arnie, but as prepared as I thought I was, it didn’t really help. Still, we are always left with a choice, to either lament someone’s absence, or to profess gratitude that they were here when we were.  I never met him, never played golf with him, never even saw him from a distance, and yet have so much to thank him for. Godspeed, Arnie.


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