On the green? says a bystander.
His green, someone else says.
He hitches a little, sets up, waggles the driver, grimaces briefly as if wishing for the momentary return of that youth that still lives in his eyes, and swings. The ball sails back down the fairway on a trajectory any of us would be pleased to own. But its not good enough for him. He wants it to be like 1964. He feels like he can do it the way he did in 1964.
Oh, and by the way: He left not a mark on that green.
Arnold Palmer has made his mark in many other ways over thousands of days like this one. The occasion is a commercial shoot at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., and Palmer, the star of the commercial, is also the clubs founder and owner. The impromptu drive was a time-killer between takes. Now that the film crew has reset and the next shot is ready, Palmer changes shirts (even in October the humidity here is still stifling) and heads toward the camera.
His eyes still smile as if they simply dont know any other way. Even he has been unable to dodge the inevitable heartbreak episodes of advancing age: He is a widower and a prostate cancer survivor (indeed, part of todays commercial shoot concerns Palmers efforts to increase prostate cancer awareness, thereby saving the lives of more men.)
But the smile remains in the eyes, and everyone from sound guy to camera operator to P.R. girl is drawn to his natural friendliness. No question: Whatever he feels he has lost off his drive, Arnold Palmers human appeal ' and commercial viability as an endorser ' refuses to decay.
Those of you rushing to the discussion boards or the e-mail to excoriate me for praising Palmer ' how can I say this politely? Save it. Every time I write something nice about Palmer, I hear that it is because he allegedly signs my paycheck. But while he is indeed the chairman of the board of The Golf Channel, he has no influence over my work. I cover golf business news; Palmer continues to make golf business news ' thats all the motivation I need, or have.
Besides, praise isnt really the objective here. Rather, it is to note that at 74, Palmer is 30 years past his last regular PGA Tour win, still an endorsement blockbuster, and probably the last of a breed.
Timing had a lot to do with Palmers endorsement success. If you trace the explosion of television-driven mass culture in this country back to the advent of the Beatles in 1962, then Palmers first Masters win of four, in 1958, couldnt have been scheduled any better. Palmer helped golf on television, and golf on TV helped him.
Then there was the personal touch. Legions of people have testified about how Arnold looked right at them, reached out his hand to shake their hands. He made a personal bridge every time he extended an arm over the ropes. (As a matter of fact, it was because of the crowds Palmer brought to golf tournaments that organizers even had to use ropes.)
It wasnt an accident. Palmers father Deacon instilled gentlemanliness in him from an early age, and made sure the lesson stuck. And the late Mark McCormack, realizing that no athlete can win all the time or forever, positioned Palmer as a winner at life, as McCormack liked to put it.
It worked. And because it worked, Palmers appeal has survived the onslaught of a speedy, impatient culture, including the immense popularity of other sports stars. Palmer continues, to this day, to be among the top 20 athlete-endorsers in the world, according to Forbes magazine.
The young man with the fire in his eyes, who is No. 1 on that Forbes list and who makes a habit of winning Palmers PGA Tour event at Bay Hill each March, has teed up a new era of endorsement power. But those who thrill to the golf expertise of Tiger Woods sometimes sigh that whatever his gifts, Woods will never be another Palmer. The less charitable blame Tiger for this, saying he should be warmer, more personable ' more like Arnold.
But its not Tigers fault that in being himself, he is something different from (or less than) the hero we remember Palmer to be. Its not that Tiger doesnt have the ability to build those same bridges Palmer built ' Woods has been unfailingly polite in my contacts with him, and he has a wicked, dry sense of humor that is often the hallmark of extreme intelligence. He runs a charitable foundation, and he has put a great deal of money where his mouth is in that regard. He is a good example for children.
But although Woods is the best opportunity for Palmer-like stardom since the generation that brought us Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, the world into which Tiger was born is irrevocably changed.
Was 1964 kindler and gentler? Perhaps. For certain, there were not as many concerns about security. There were less people vying for an athletes time. Sports stardom earned respect, but not deification. We had not yet coined the term stalker. The commercial machinery that had been built by Palmers time didnt yet have the privacy-destroying capability is does today.
Within the unfriendly confines of these challenges, Woods has done pretty well. His handlers know his presence, image and likeness are assets that must be protected. But the charitable goals remain. And although it might be a stretch to believe Woods fathers mid-1990s prediction that Tiger will outdo Gandhi, its perfectly reasonable to believe Woods will use his extraordinary focus and will to do some lasting good in the world.
Kind of like his annual host at Bay Hill. Between swings, Palmer brought smiles to the faces of millions, and continues to do so. And while we wont see him on the Nobel Prize list this week, we owe him a lot.
Woods may be able to accomplish the same thing. But it might be a lot to ask if we expect him to do it the same way.
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