A story I once heard occurred at the 1965 Ryder Cup. Arnold was the first off on the first day, leading the American team with his limitless style. His foursomes partner was a Ryder Cup rookie and on the verge of bewilderment about the enormity of playing for his country in a far-flung arena. Arnold crushed his drive, as Arnold tended to do in those days, and his partner was left with a short iron to the green at the long par 4. Their opponents had hit a decent approach, but were out of birdie range, so the hole could be all but won with a solid second shot. Arnolds partner calmed his nerves as he stood over the ball, then swung. He hit so far behind the ball that for a moment he thought he had missed completely. Arnold asked Did I give you a bad lie? His partner replied, No, Im just so nervous I almost laid the divot on top of my ball. Arnold laughed and told the rookie Welcome to the Ryder Cup.
At lunch that day, U.S. team Captain Byron Nelson came upon the two eating lunch. Arnold, I think Ill put you with Johnny Pott this afternoon. Arnold looked up and said, Ive got my partner, well do fine this afternoon. That afternoon Arnold and my father never trailed in their match and ended up winning 6-and-5. Dad went on to win three of his next four matches and never forgot the show of support and confidence he received that day from his friend, and idol, Arnold Palmer.
We all have our favorite Arnold Palmer stories, some famous, some personal. A high-ranking Tour official told me of the time Arnold was Captain of the Presidents Cup and took command of the team bus on the way to the hotel from the course one day. He felt the team needed a little bonding and ordered an unscheduled stop at a sports bar. The team filed off the bus and headed inside for some pool, darts, refreshments, whatever they wanted. I for one would have loved to have seen the face of the owner when 13 of the most famous golfers in the world just popped in, unannounced.
At one point a golf fan asked Arnold for his autograph and Arnold declined. Arnold rarely refuses to sign autographs, but on this night he didnt want to burden the team with the inevitable memorabilia frenzy that accompanies those situations. It would have impacted the feeling of team unity he was building. The players continued to laugh and talk and play, growing closer to one another. When it was time to leave the players boarded the bus. Just before he got on, Arnold excused himself, saying he needed to use the restroom. He went back inside, found the autograph seeker, signed his name then headed back to the bus. Pure Arnold.
I remember going to the Bob Hope Desert Classic, when I was the executive director of the Tradition. I wanted to talk with Arnold and other players about playing in the Tradition. He was playing with the three Atlanta Braves pitchers, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.
On one hole Arnold teed off then waited at the Amateur tee for the Braves to hit theirs. As he was watching them hit, one by one, I noticed a kid, no more than ten years old, ignoring the golf and looking up at Arnold from inside the ropes. He was in a regulation-sized Shaquille ONeal jersey and had spiked blond hair. He was the exact opposite of Arnold, but the look on his face was one of pure idolatry, being an arms length from the King. After the last pitcher hit, Arnold turned toward the crowd and started to move toward the fairway when he noticed mini-shaq at his hip. He smiled that Arnold Palmer smile, messed up that spiked hair-do with his hand then went about his business. The gallery in the immediate vicinity giggled, the boy was absolutely stunned, he turned and looked up at the man standing behind him. The man, obviously his father, had tears of joy streaming down his face. The man bent at the knees and hugged his son as I turned away to follow Arnold.
Very few people have the ability to touch others in a way that they will remember for decades. Fewer still take advantage of that ability. Arnold has always shared himself with his fans more completely than any superstar with whom Ive had a chance to be around. Its as if he knows the joy he can bring to others and makes it a priority to do so. Such selflessness is rare in the modern sports world, and its why Arnold Palmer is the most beloved, and I believe the most important golfer in history.