Meeting the King for the first time

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About 25 years ago – sheesh, really, 25 years? – I covered my first Masters. It was, coincidentally, the first golf tournament I had ever covered. I had been hired blindly as columnist for the Augusta Chronicle because, well, you’d have to ask them. I had never played a round of golf. And my only experience as a golf writer was the community golf notebook I would do for York Observer in Rock Hill, S.C., and even that I messed up routinely. I remember once talking to one of the organizers of a local charity golf tournament, and he was explaining to me that it was a Captain’s Choice tournament.

“What’s that?” I asked. He explained the Captain’s Choice format – all players hitting and then everyone playing the best ball – and I was so blown away by the novelty of this that I wrote the first eight paragraphs of the column about this cool new way to play golf. An editor (who was, as she often told me, almost oblivious to golf and sports in general) saved me by pointing out that Captain’s Choice is essentially the most popular charity golf format on planet earth and probably all other planets. She found it both hilarious and frightening that I did not know this.

Still, the Augusta Chronicle – which, you might expect, cares quite a bit about golf – hired me to write sports columns. And that made me the lead columnist for the Augusta paper at the 1992 Masters. It still boggles the mind.

As you might imagine, I was all but helpless leading into the tournament. I had no idea where to go, what to do, who to talk with, how to write any of it.

On the first day, I watched Arnold Palmer come in from his practice round. He was, let’s see here, 62 years old then, still strong, still full of the energy and life that had made him golf’s most iconic figure. I knew him from the Pennzoil commercials, mostly. He had not made the cut at Augusta in a few years but there was still a sense of possibility about him then, still a sense that he just might have one more charge left in him.

He came off the course after that practice round, and he was in the best of spirits, of course. I’m sure he has had his dark moods but in public, he was always ecstatic; his mood always seemed to say, “I’m Arnold Palmer. OF COURSE I’m having a good day.” He answered a couple of reporters’ questions under the marvelous oak tree that stands in front of the Augusta National clubhouse. I wandered over. I supposed that as the columnist for the Augusta Chronicle, I should introduce myself to the King. But I’ve never really been good at that sort of thing.

I waited for everyone to finish. Eventually, the other two or three reporters sort of faded off, and it was just me and Arnie. At this point, it might have been good for me to have a question in mind or an introduction or something, but I did not have any of that so I kind of just stood there and looked at him. It was probably no more than three seconds, but it felt like I stood there silent for about 20 years. Finally, someone spoke, but it wasn’t me. It was Palmer.

“How are you doing today?” he asked me.

I have absolutely no idea why he said that. The normal thing for athletes to do – and by “normal” I mean I have never seen a single other athlete do what Palmer did – is to walk away as soon as the last question is asked. But Palmer stuck around. He somehow sensed that I wanted to talk with him. He somehow sensed that I was nervous. He somehow sensed that he could help me.

His words shook me from the paralysis I’d been feeling, and I introduced myself. I was wearing a badge that said “AUGUSTA CHRONICLE” on it, and I suspect he saw that. He mentioned several of the people at the Chronicle he had known through the years. He told me he thought the paper had always been good to him. He told me the phrase “Arnie’s Army” had started with a headline in the Chronicle (though it had been coined by a G.I. whose name, unfortunately, is lost to history). He told me I had an important legacy to keep. And he asked me what I was planning to write about.

In my own stumbling way, I told him that I wasn’t too knowledgeable about golf. I think I told him this by asking him a series of increasingly dumber questions. He smiled and made a suggestion or two, I don’t remember what those were. I do remember that he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll keep my eye on you.”

And for the rest of that tournament, into the next year and the next, whenever I would see Arnold Palmer, whenever our eyes would meet, he would give me a little thumbs up sign. I took that at the time to mean he had read my columns and approved what I was doing but, in retrospect, it probably did not mean that at all. It probably meant simply, “Hey, kid, I remember you.”

Fortunately, the magic works either way.

Arnold Palmer is probably not one of the four greatest players in the history of the game. He’s not Tiger or Jack, he’s not Hogan or Jones, and you can argue on from there. But if there was a Mount Rushmore for golf, he would be on it. He would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore in part because of the way he played with his jerky swing and his go-for-broke style. He smoked his cigarettes and rode the wind and cheers and the momentum. He simply changed the way people looked at the game as a spectator sport. He made the game thrilling.

He would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore in part because of the way he lit up the television screen. Golf on television made no sense to a lot of people in the 1950s; the sport seemed too massive and too undramatic for television. Then came the King. “The cameras loved Palmer,” the legendary sports television producer Frank Chirkinian said. “He would show up on the screen and it was like: ‘WHAM!'”

And Arnold Palmer would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore mostly because of the way he engaged with people. He chatted with the crowd. He made them feel a part of his successes … and his failures. He was just a regular guy, a factory worker or auto mechanic or longshoreman who happened to play golf. He took the sport out of the country clubs. He inspired countless people to buy a golf club at yard sales and swing at a few whiffle balls in the back yard.

Arnie turns 87 today, and I think about many things, but I especially think about his kindness. Years later, I mentioned to him our first meeting. He smiled as if he remembered, though he surely did not, and he said: “Well, you turned out OK.” And then he walked off to make someone else’s life a little bit brighter.