ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer never asked to be The King. It was a designation cast upon him, and a crown he has always worn with reluctance.
The common touch, however, was instilled within him. And something he has always carried well and willingly.
Palmer credits his father, Deacon –“Deac” – for not only teaching him how to play the game, but for shaping him into the person he’s been for the last 79 years.
“Well, I guess, you just treat people the way you want to be treated,” Palmer said. “That’s about as simple as I can put it.”
John Jarosky would agree.
Jaroksy, a member at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, had a couple of friends in town a while back. Of course, they wanted to play the course. And, of course, they wanted at least a glimpse of Palmer.
At the time, Palmer had just undergone prostate surgery. According to Jaroksy, he was resting in the back yard of one of the cottages he owns off the 18th fairway.
“Now remember,” Jarosky says, “Mr. Palmer was not feeling very well and was relishing his rest with some peace and quiet.”
Jarosky’s guests, a couple of bold Chicagoans, on the other hand, saw this situation as an opportunity to gather a signature.
“They walked directly into the backyard,” Jarosky recalls. “He (Palmer) stood up out of his chair, which was at the time hard for him to do, smiled and called my friends over for a picture and an autograph.
“He could not have been more gracious. … Besides my father, I can’t think of anyone that actually lives by the motto, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated,’ more than him.”
Jarosky is not alone in his adoration. Over the years, ever since turning professional in 1954, Palmer has developed a legion of fans – his very own, very well numbered army. People who would follow him on foot like Forrest Gump, from one side of the country to another, and back.
“He has this uncanny knack to make you feel so comfortable around him,” says Wayne Schmidt of Louisville, Ky.
“He makes you feel really cool and part of his crowd,” says Thomas Kees, who got a chance to hang out with Palmer after playing in a pro-am with him at a Champions Tour event in Houston.
The two were at a charity dinner when the late Dinah Shore walked over. “This is Tom Kees,” said Palmer. “You know Tom, don’t you?” Replied Dinah, “No I don’t, but it’s a pleasure.” To which Palmer responded, “Well you should, as he’s a great guy!”
About 10 years later the two met up again in Fresno, Calif. This time they had dinner with Kees’ wife and son, as well as Palmer’s pilot and caddie.
“The rest of the story is that five days later, I get a letter from Arnold thanking me for the dinner and conversation,” Kees says. “He remembered my wife and son by name and indicated that I had ‘a beautiful family.’ But he was mad because I didn’t let him buy me dinner.”
There are thousands of Tom Keeses across the U.S. and beyond. Thousands of people who shared a moment with Palmer, however fleeting, and left the encounter forever fulfilled.
“I’m sitting cross-legged on the grass at the very front of the large gallery and just inside the gallery rope on No. 9 tee, and here comes Mr. Palmer’s group,” tells John Hoch about attending the old IVB Golf Classic outside of Philadelphia with his father.
“Arnie strides onto the tee, gets his bearings – hitches his pants and pulls a club – and then proceeds to look down squarely at me. He smiles and winks directly at me!
“Of all the people around that tee that day and he somehow chose to smile and wink at me. I’ll never forget it.”
In the early 1980s, at a Champions Tour event in Lexington, Ky., Vic Peek watched as Palmer three-putted the 17th hole. “Tough bogey,” Peek told Palmer as he waited for the rest of the group to finish up. “Palmer squeezed my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, ‘All bogeys are tough, son.’”
Palmer made plenty of bogeys throughout his career. One came on the ninth hole during the 1985 Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic in Houston. This one was particularly tough to take, because as Jay Reppond of Sugar Land, Texas, tells, he completely whiffed his tap-in par putt.
“Putter went right over the ball,” Reppond says, “I couldn’t believe it.”
Reppond had been hoping to get Palmer’s autograph during the players’ walk between the ninth and 10th holes. Now he wasn’t so sure it would be a good idea to approach him.
But he did.
“I got up the nerve,” says Reppond. “He was so gracious and smiled at me. He took my program and signed it. You would think after what just happened he might just pass me by. I will never forget that smile on his face, and the day I walked beside the ‘King.’”
It might seem a little too mushy, these Palmer tales. All this fawning and fond reminiscing. As if he were not without fault or free from sin.
But these are people’s stories. These are their experiences with Palmer.
The fact that each and everyone is positive only goes to showcase the love, respect and appreciation Palmer has for his fans. The fact that they are personal, individual moments – and not ones trumpeted for all to witness – showcases his sincerity.
“My son and I went to a Senior PGA tournament (in 1992) at Inglewood Country Club, near Seattle,” tells Dennis Acorn of Redmond, Wash. “My son (David, 12) and I waited near the parking lot for 20 minutes before a couple of Cadillacs pulled up with Arnie’s entourage.
“David and I were just watching and didn’t want to disturb Mr. Palmer, as he was late getting to the course. He seemed in a hurry to get to the driving range to hit some balls before his tee time.
“As he was heading to the driving range, a lady volunteer stopped Mr. Palmer and said, ‘Mr. Palmer, there is a little boy over there that has been waiting a long time to see you.’”
And what do you think was his response?
“Mr. Palmer stopped in his tracks and immediately came over and knelt down and shook hands with David. He also autographed a visor for him. …That small gesture of his made an impression that neither David nor myself will ever forget.”
The year was 1967. Jeff Roberts was stationed in Chu Lai, South Vietnam at a station surrounded by sand. One day, he and his buddy, Wally Schneider, decided to write Palmer and ask for a sand wedge and a few golf balls.
They didn’t know his address so they just sent it to:
Not only did each of the boys get a wedge and a dozen golf balls, they also got a personal note from Palmer thanking them for their service.
The following year, back home in Illinois, Roberts was able to attend the Western Open at Olympia Fields, where he waited outside the clubhouse for Palmer to appear. “I told him I was one of the guys he sent clubs to,” Roberts recalls. “And he asks, ‘Are you Jeff or Wally?’”
“That he not only remembered sending the clubs, but also remembered our names – that blew my mind.”
George Pasley has met Palmer on a couple of occasions; though, there was nothing quite like their first encounter.
Pasley won aboard a Singapore Airlines flight, on the way to Jakarta, Indonesia. Because of poor weather in Hong Kong, the flight was diverted to Taipei and the passengers were stuck on a tarmac for six hours.
“About three hours into the delay, the senior flight attendant announced to the first class cabin that Mr. Palmer would like to make a statement. He walked into the front cabin and said, ‘Many of you may not know me but I’m a professional golfer. I’ve experienced situations like this before. I’ve learned there is only one solution – martinis!’
“He saved the day.”
And made many others unforgettable.
“The fans energize me,” Palmer said in a recent interview. “My fans are the people that I looked to as my inspiration. They made me want to win. When I see people smile, it makes me smile.”
Susan Schuch’s father idolized Palmer. Unfortunately, cancer brought an early end to his life. Right before it did, however, Schuch took her father to a senior event in Sarasota, Fla.
While waiting for Palmer for an autograph after his round, she was struck by his patience and generosity amid an ocean of fans.
“When it was my turn, as Arnie began to sign my ticket stub, Dad said, ‘Watch the man work, Susie.’ Arnie started to smile and then slowly looked up at me and then looked beyond me to engage my dad with a now broad smile.
“For over 20 years that memory has sustained me in times of missing my dad.”
Stories like these, individual as they are, are aplenty. Whether it’s a kind word or a 30-minute conversation; a wink or a smile; a chance to see him hit one tee shot or walk an entire round alongside him, inside the ropes; as Jimmy Carson says, “He just makes you feel human. Like he knows you. Like he’s your friend.
“He’s Arnold Palmer, for goodness sake.”
Joel Grant’s daughter had no idea who Palmer was when she met him in 1995 at a senior tournament near Seattle. She followed Palmer’s group in tow with her mother and father. At one point during the round, one of Palmer’s errant shots landed in their vicinity, “almost flush against a tree,” says Joel.
As Palmer surveyed his predicament – and what a fine mess it was – he noticed Joel’s daughter. “How are you?” Palmer asked, to which Brittany shyly smiled back.
Palmer had to take his medicine on that hole, but ultimately shot 66, just one off his age. Coming down the final fairway, Palmer’s tee shot once again finished near the Grant family.
“Nice to see you again,” Palmer said, with his big Arnie smile, to the little girl. She smiled back, as she did before, but didn’t speak – not because she was in awe of Arnold Palmer, but because that’s what shy 9-year-old girls do around strangers.
“As he walked away,” Joel remembers, “my daughter asked, ‘Who was that nice, nice man?’ I just shook my head and smiled. Who is this man whose charisma as a human, not just a celebrity is off the charts?
“I do not know, but for sure, they broke the mold when they made this man.”