CHASKA, Minn. – Arnold Palmer was an inspiration too immense to be claimed solely by the American team this week.
If the United States comes out in cardigan sweaters to honor Palmer’s memory in Friday’s start of the Ryder Cup, the Europeans ought to be outfitted in them, too. If Palmer umbrella logos are attached to American team bags, European bags ought to sport them, too.
Yes, Palmer was an American icon, but the King’s rule reached around the world.
If Palmer’s going to be honored this week, it shouldn’t be as motivation for the Americans to win.
That would seem crudely opportunistic, a distasteful attempt to use his death as a competitive advantage.
The Europeans ought to be as integrally involved in celebrating Palmer’s memory as the Americans, because he was just as important to them.
“Arnold Palmer was a global superstar,” European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke said. “He inspired people all over the world to take up golf.”
American captain Davis Love III sees that bigger picture. He appeared to be channeling his inner Arnold Palmer upon his arrival at Hazeltine Monday.
“These guys from the European team, they respected and loved Arnold and played in his golf tournament and lived in Orlando,” Love said. “They were under the same influence of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus . . . It’s going to be a different week for both sides.”
The PGA is flying flags at half-staff at Hazeltine this week. The organization has plans to honor Palmer Friday with a video tribute and a moment of silence at the first tee before the matches begin. All credit to Love being out front on this, too. He wants the greater good of the game benefitted in any other plans to honor Palmer’s memory.
“Both of our teams want to honor the Palmer legacy in the same way,” Love said.
The best way for Americans and Europeans alike to remember Palmer this week is to play like hell to win, but honor the way Palmer valued sportsmanship in doing so.
What is sportsmanship? It’s an ancient Olympic ideal based on the idea that you honor your opponent because you’re striving for excellence together, pushing each other to get there. The word competition is based on the Latin word competere, which means to strive together. Really, sportsmanship is civility’s first cousin, something in such short supply today with the world run amok in political incivilities and social media boorishness.
“Manners are more important than laws,” British statesman Edmund Burke once wrote. “Upon them in great measure the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex and soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe . . . They aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”
Palmer was big on manners.
For as much as we’ve heard about Palmer writing to congratulate winners over the years, he also liked to write letters to congratulate great acts of sportsmanship. He saw wins even in heartbreaking losses.
Back when this reporter was a local golf writer in South Florida in 2001, Palmer sent a letter to a local high school player heartbroken after volunteering that he signed an incorrect scorecard, costing his team a berth in the state championship. “You had to make a difficult decision with obviously damaging consequences, yet you made the right choice and you were able to walk away from the event with your head held high,” Palmer wrote. A year later, the boy won the state championship.
Palmer relished the patriotic nature of the Ryder Cup.
“I loved the Ryder Cup, because it simply wasn’t about playing for money,” he wrote in “A Golfers Life,” one of his autobiographies. “It was about playing for something far grander and more personal than income and money lists. It was all about playing for your country, your people, and therefore yourself, and it was pure joy to beat the best of Britain and Ireland in an honorable game almost as old as the Magna Carta.”
Palmer played on six American Ryder Cup teams (1961-63-65-67-71-73), never on a losing team. He captained two Ryder Cup teams, both of them winners (1963 and ’75) and was the last playing captain (’63). He was 22-8-2 in the event and still holds the American record for most matches won.
Palmer, though, didn’t win the undying respect of Europeans because of his Ryder Cup efforts. He won that rejuvenating The Open.
After winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960, Palmer flew to the Old Course at St. Andrews to make a run at a “Grand Slam” sweep of the majors. He did this at a time when most Americans skipped The Open. Though Palmer didn’t win that year, he would go on to win it in 1961 and ’62.
“Arnold persuaded all the other top guys to come over and play,” Clarke said.
Tony Jacklin says Palmer inspired Brits to make The Open a better championship.
“When he won The Open twice in a row, he really got the attention of the R&A,” Jacklin said. “The R&A sent a contingent over to the United States every year to see how they put on the Masters and the U.S. Open. Really, they raised the profile of The Open Championship, unbelievably, on the back of Arnold’s wins.”
It’s part of why Europeans are as thankful for Palmer as the Americans are.
"Arnie was a legend, was a great man," Sergio Garcia said. "He helped our game not only in the U.S., but all over the world. We also feel very sad for his loss and we miss him very much."
All of this would make a Palmer “thumbs up” a meaningful gesture among Europeans and Americans alike this week as a replacement for fist bumps and high fives.