As the statements poured out in the wake of Arnold Palmer’s death on Sunday night — ranging from 23-year-old Jordan Spieth to 76-year-old Jack Nicklaus to the President of the United States, I was struck by one thing: Almost no one said anything about Palmer’s golf.
It was all about the man.
Palmer, who was 87 when he died in a Pittsburgh hospital, was a great player: a seven-time major champion who won 62 times on the PGA Tour, fifth on the career list. But Palmer wasn’t one of the most iconic athletes of the past 100 years because of what he did on the golf course, but because of what he did off the golf course.
No one understood and embraced the responsibilities of stardom the way Arnold Palmer did. No one ever signed more autographs — never a scrawl, but a very clear signature. No one was more accessible or open with the media — all media, ranging from TV networks to high school kids who wanted to ask a few questions.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are the greatest players in golf history. Palmer was the most important: He made golf a sport for TV, for corporate America and for millions of fans — his “army.”
Palmer had an almost unique gift: He could make anyone he was talking to feel as if they were the most important person he had ever met. Everyone who ever met Palmer has a story about their first encounter.
Here’s mine: In 1994, while researching, “A Good Walk Spoiled,” I asked Doc Giffin, Palmer’s right-hand man for 53 years, whether Palmer might have some time to talk during the annual PGA Tour event he hosted at Bay Hill. The next day, Doc asked me if I could go to Arnold’s house for breakfast later in the week.
When we shook hands at the front door, Palmer said, “So, Doc tells me you went to Duke.”
I said that was correct. Palmer smiled, shook his head and said, “So, I guess you couldn’t get into Wake Forest.”
His alma mater . . . of course.
Two hours later, he had supplied me with enough material for several chapters. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I thanked him for his time, his hospitality and for breakfast.
“You got enough?” he asked. “I’m going down to my workshop to work on some clubs if you want to stick around a while longer.”
That became another 90 minutes.
Palmer did that for everyone.
More than anything, Palmer always understood that fame and fortune aren’t a one-way street. Before the 1997 Masters, Palmer took Tiger Woods to lunch in the champions’ locker room at Augusta National. Woods was still a few days away from his first Masters victory — so Palmer hosted him.
Woods was singing a song that went something like, “It’s just not fair. I can’t be a normal 21-year-old.”
“You’re right,” Palmer said. “Normal 21-year-olds don’t have $50 million in the bank.”
Palmer always connected with young players. As with Woods, he never coddled them. He told them exactly what he thought about their games, the way they behaved, even the way they looked.
In 1996, when Paul Goydos won at Bay Hill — and thus qualified for the Masters — he asked Palmer during the awards ceremony if he could play a practice round with him at Augusta.
“Only if you lose that ridiculous beard,” Palmer said. “You look awful.”
Goydos lost the beard and asked that it be air-brushed out of his champions portrait that hangs in the Bay Hill clubhouse. “I didn’t want Mr. Palmer to walk by it and think I looked ridiculous,” he said.
This past March, a number of players changed their schedules to play Bay Hill because they knew Palmer was ill and it might be their last chance to pay tribute.
Twenty-five years ago, Palmer made the cut at Bay Hill — for the final time — at the age of 61. That night, Peter Jacobsen went to a bakery and asked for a sheet cake for 100 people.
“I need it first thing in the morning,” Jacobsen said.
“Monday is the earliest I can do it,” the baker said.
“It’s for Arnold Palmer.”
“We open at 8 tomorrow. Is that soon enough?”
When Jacobsen presented the cake to Palmer that afternoon during a rain delay with the entire field in the locker room, Palmer cried. Then he cut a piece for every player.
“I cried because Peter and all the guys were saying to me that I was still one of them,” Palmer said. “That meant a lot.”
He never stopped being one of them.
On a searingly hot June day in 1994, Palmer played his last U.S. Open round. He was clearly exhausted coming down the stretch, but it never stopped him from returning every wave, every, ‘Go Arnie,’ every cheer of any kind, with a smile, a wave, a “thanks,” or “how’s it going?” Every one of those people got a look in the eye and the famous smile. They all could go home and tell their friends, “Arnold Palmer said hello to me today.”
Because he did.
As Palmer walked up the 18th fairway that afternoon, many players came out of the clubhouse to stand behind the green and join the throngs. On the 10th tee — adjacent to the green — players refused to tee off so they could watch.
When Palmer made his final putt, playing partner Rocco Mediate, like Palmer a blue-collar kid from western Pennsylvania, leaned down, pointed at the thousands around the green and said softly, “All this is because of you.”
A few minutes later, when Palmer came into a packed interview room, he was overcome by tears on several occasions. He tried to talk — and stopped. He tried again — and stopped. Finally, he stood to leave. Every single person in the room jumped to their feet and applauded.
It was completely unprofessional. No cheering in the press box. And yet, it was absolutely the right thing to do because no one ever did more for the media than Palmer.
A handful of us trailed him back to the locker room. There, he composed himself and talked for another 20 minutes.
“I shot 81 today,” he said softly. “I was terrible. In any other sport, I’d have been booed — should have been booed. Instead, I get cheered.”
He paused for a moment. “How lucky have I been to have played this game for all these years?”
Actually, the luck was ours.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.