The Phenomenon of Arnold Palmer

The Arnold Palmer Invitational Makes Us Take a Look Back

The field has teed it up this week at Bay Hill in Orlando for a tournament bearing the name of someone so important that the game would be in the dark ages without him. I never met Arnold Palmer, and never got the opportunity to see him up close. I can’t speak to his daily regimen, his working methods, or his myriad of business interests or hobbies. Most of us are in the same boat, but on the other hand, golfers and non-golfers alike had plenty of opportunity to see the public Palmer, the man who brought golf into the television age. What we saw was by any measure impressive.

Yes, the statistics place Palmer in the top group historically. his sixty-plus wins on tour and his majors record is eye-popping. Had it not been for the other two thirds of the ‘Big Three,” Nicklaus and Player, Palmer might have continued running rampant over the tour schedule for years after. He was awarded everything there was to receive, and had an almost magical talent for making whatever he wanted to happen…happen. One article describes him as “A Life Well-Played,” and it couldn’t be more true. Younger folks remember Palmer as a sweet old man making ceremonial appearances at the Masters, or at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Intellectually, everyone knows that a massive amount of excitement and winning history went into that as a back story, but if you weren’t there to see it, it’s just not the same. “Well,” they say, “He belonged to your generation, not mine.” Perhaps as a golfer, that is true, but every generation would be smart to consider Palmer’s ‘life well-played’ as a model for personal success.

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The ceremonial Palmer actually creates a misrepresentation of the success that got him there. Where he appears saintly and carefree in the late image, Palmer was not a navel-gazer, sitting around waiting for a sign to act. He was a doer in the most extreme sense of the word, and competed with a ferocity that is difficult to describe. His life was marked with decisiveness, from early decisions to take up the game, join the navy, attend Wake Forest, go pro after winning the U.S. Amateur, to the development of a business empire that brought him considerable wealth, Palmer was the perfect example of making a plan and fulfilling it. He was smart, clear-eyed, energized, and good to people. That last one is the part that got so many of us.  In our present day, where so many are polarized, and the divide between haves and have-nots is widening, many assume that the wealthy had to step on somebody to get there, and are nefarious in their efforts to keep others down. At times, that is probably true, but not with Palmer. He spoke to people just like me, and to people just like him, in the same way. Graciousness and good will were not selective concepts. They were universal.

So, what we got by the time Arnold Palmer started winning all those majors from the 1950s on, and a hot period of 29 tour events in about three years, was a home-grown Captain America, right up there with Roy Rodgers and the astronauts.  Add the other two, and the public image took on a “Legend of Superheroes” look. As a country and industry, we were smitten, and giving in to that image turned out to be all right. Palmer played and won honorably, grew the game, brought it into the living room for us all to see. He set an example of elegance that we could all imitate (provided we were smart enough), and went all-out on charitable works.
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When I visited the PGA website, and realized that this was the week for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, I winced as a reflex, feeling his loss all over again. It wasn’t just the ceremonial icon I missed. It was the whole brilliant story going back through the decades. I missed that ‘life well-played,’ and felt sorry that avid fans growing up now were not able to see it happen as we did.


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