Palmer's passing stirs vivid memories of the King


A century passes and depending on one’s age, maybe 10 years are so indelibly marked that the mere utterance of the number brings to mind an event. 1961: Roger Maris hits 61 home runs. 1974: Richard Nixon resigns. 1945: World War II ends. You know those connections instantly. 2016 was that kind of year. The King died.

Once in a great while the future can be foreseen. When Tiger won the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, no one doubted that the history books were about to get dented up. But mostly, clairvoyance is impossible. Nobody could’ve predicted Arnold Palmer’s popularity.

Sure he was handsome and muscular, but so was Frank Stranahan. Arnold won often enough, eight times each in 1960 and 1962, but Byron Nelson won 18 tournaments, including those 11 in a row, in 1945. Sam Snead won 10 times in 1950 and even Paul Runyan won nine times in 1933. Arnold had a great come-from-behind win at the U.S. Open in 1960 when he started the final round seven shots back, shot 65 and won. But just the year before, Bob Rosburg had won the PGA Championship from six back with 18 to play, and in 1950 Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open after having been near death from a 1949 head-on collision with a bus.

It wasn’t any one thing that made Arnold Palmer the King, it was everything. He was handsome and muscular. He won often, and in dramatic ways that would bring the crowd to a whirling mass of astonishment. He lost, too, and his knees would buckle and his body would contort in some kabuki pose of self-chastisement. It was as if he were the home team of every city in America and they had just lost the big game and an entire country's worth of fans threw their arms in the air and screamed at the TV over the inequity.

Sports may just be about entertainment, but in an ideal way - OK, maybe in a romantic way - we want it to convey values, too. We don’t need our sports stars to be worthy of our admiration - think of Kobe Bryant or Ty Cobb - but it would be nice if they were. There was an integrity to the way Arnold Palmer played golf and a humility to the way he interacted with sports fans and members of the media. He was unfailingly polite and generous with his time, time and time again.

Great golfers have a kinesthetic sense, where they are able to match themselves to the landscape, simultaneously matching themselves to the weather conditions and to the topography that their ball must traverse in flight and upon landing. Arnold Palmer had this, but in the exact same way he could sense the appropriate way to talk to an individual and to handle himself in any situation.

Such was his gift of charisma that his popularity wasn’t just specific to the knowledgable sports fan. Sports nuts and those who didn’t follow sports knew him equally. Nor was his appeal dependent upon one’s demographic or nationality. He was universally loved by the man who worked with his hands, by scientists, politicians and generals, artists and the biggest stars in Hollywood. 

In the summer of 1981 I went to Great Britain to play golf. One day, while playing at Carnoustie, I was paired with an artist by the name of Harold Riley. Some 21 years before that summer, Harold had been sent to St. Andrews to sketch some pictures of an American who had won the 1960 U.S. Open and the Masters. There was Grand Slam talk for the first time since Bobby Jones, 1930. Arnold Palmer had never played The Open and Harold Riley had never seen the man he was to paint.

Exiting the train at St. Andrews, Harold went for a walk across the links, sketching the landscape and people as they crisscrossed the fairways. One man drew his attention for the way he moved. For the way he drew on that Salem cigarette as if it were his muse. For the way he slashed at the ball and cocked his head and the way he strode from hole to hole through the peloton of patrons. It turned out to be Arnold Palmer.

As the week went by Harold Riley painted and sketched the man who would be King many times over. In one scene Palmer was leaning on his putter as he waited for his turn to play with that Salem cigarette, giving off a thin line of smoke, hanging from his mouth. In another he was somewhere in the finish of his swing, with turf and dirt and sinew flying everywhere.

Over the years as I got to know Harold his popularity grew (he painted presidents and popes)  and he made a gift of many paintings to me. One of them is a pencil sketch of Palmer at St. Andrews in 1960, where he finished second to Kel Nagle. Palmer has his legs crossed, is leaning on his putter and wearing a cardigan sweater, the last button left fashionably undone. He is staring off at something he needed to figure out, caught perfectly in the vacuum of competition.

In 1983, I made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to play Riviera. There I ran into a group of men who were laughing and wisecracking and playing fast off the 18th tee. One of them was the head of Columbia pictures, another was one of the men who produced "All in the Family." Bud Yorkin was his name, as I recall. Another, who had a big Rolex watch on his wrist as he played, was a man by the name of Rudy Durand. After the round, I met them for drinks in the club. Somewhere in the course of that post-round banter, Rudy said, “Friendship is serious business,” and the look in his eyes when those words left his mouth, well, it made you want to be his friend. As the years went by, decades even, he became one of my best friends. Rudy was also best friends with one of the biggest movie stars of all time, Jack Nicholson.

I played a few rounds of golf at Riviera with Rudy and Jack and I found out, among the many things that Nicholson loved, he loved art, he loved golf ... and he loved Arnold Palmer. So a few years ago, when “The Colonel” as Rudy calls Jack, (after his iconic, “You can't handle the truth!!!” role as Colonel Jessup) in "A Few Good Men") turned 75 and Rudy and I were talking about what one gives to someone who has every material possession, every kind of professional admiration, for such a monumental birthday.

When I got back to my home in Scottsdale I boxed up the Harold Riley picture of Arnold Palmer and sent it to Rudy to give to Jack for his 75th birthday. A few days later, Rudy called and after the usual greeting of lovable insults, he told me Jack had said that the gift made him smile and made him cry.

Arnold Palmer could do that. He did it to us all.