Players recollect memories of meeting the King


BMW Championship 2007 LogoLEMONT, Ill. – It was Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors, to say nothing of those 19 Grand Slam also-rans, that Tiger Woods famously had pinned to the wall of his boyhood home, and the duo create the perfect combination of clinical efficiency and competitive zeal.

Yet as the golf world prepares to celebrate its most endearing octogenarian the thought is unshakable, there would be no Jack Nicklaus, at least not the Jack we remember today, and perhaps no Tiger Woods without the original version – Arnold Palmer.

Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer
Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer share a smile. (Getty Images)
On Thursday Palmer turns 80 – which begs the question, what do you buy the legend that has his own plane, his own drink and enough bullet points on the resume to fill a phone book? Even some six decades after his first Tour victory, the King’s shadow may be a tad slump-shouldered but his influence on the modern professional is unmistakable.

Although the vast majority of today’s Tour pros don’t slash at the golf ball with the ferocity of a lumberjack, they don’t hitch up their paints and charge down fairways and, sadly, many don’t engage the public like Palmer did, but nearly all of the modern versions appreciate what he did for the game at the perfect crossroads of television and mass appeal. It’s in their eyes, like the birth of a child or first Tour victory, when you ask them to remember the first time they crossed paths with the legend.

“They were playing in Napa Valley (Calif.) and he invited me to dinner,” Woods recalled recently. “Well, the tab comes, I’m not going to say, hey, Arnold, it’s on me. He goes and picks up the tab like it’s no big deal. My (college) coach had to report me (to the NCAA) because that was a violation.”

Luckily, Palmer’s generosity didn’t cost Woods any eligibility, only $25 and some change. His endearing nature, however, is a common theme among those who have attempted to fill the King’s shoes both on and off the course.

Before he turned into the Tour’s post-season version of Derek Jeter, Steve Stricker was a little-known player with his wife on his bag. During the duo’s first stop at Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational in the early 1990s they stopped Palmer to thank him for inviting them to his event.

“It was like going to see your grandfather and listening to him tell stories about his past. It's a time my wife and I have never forgotten, just the two of us and Arnold Palmer and his personal assistant Doc Giffin in his office,” Stricker said. “We didn't know him, but he treated us like we were old friends. That's the way he's always been when I've seen him. He makes you feel very comfortable around him even though he's this golf icon.”

Nearly a decade later, Tour rookie Mark Wilson and his wife had a similar Palmer moment.

“She was walking up in the Bay Hill clubhouse trying to find a bathroom. She sees this gentleman from behind, and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you know where the bathrooms are?’ The man turns around, and it’s Arnold Palmer,” Wilson said. “She was just speechless. He was a true gentleman. He walked her over and showed her where to go and was as nice as could be.”

Although the swing has slowed over the years, his passion for the game has never diminished. While some modern Tour pros marvel at how the legend engaged the golf fan with his everyman appeal, others see a timeless passion that is unrivaled.

“I remember about eight years ago, he's digging through the trunk of his car, where he's got some different drivers and he's taking a look at them and feeling them out before the round to see what he wanted to use,” recalls Brett Quigley. “I know he's done that his whole career. I love that. He was about 73 years old then, and I loved that he was still into golf that much. I loved that he has that much passion about the game.”

Palmer has set the standard for how a professional should act, both on and off the golf course, since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and he’s passed along his knowledge in that subtle type of way that only a seven-time major champion can.

During his first Masters in 1991 Phil Mickelson arranged a practice round with Palmer at Augusta National. After the round the two were walking toward the clubhouse when Palmer seized on the opportunity to teach a future major champion a lesson.

“Right here in 1961 I had a one-shot lead,” Mickelson remembers Palmer telling him. “I came over and shook somebody’s hand and he said, ‘congratulations.’ I never should have said thank you. I should have said it’s not over.”

Palmer lost the ’61 Masters to Gary Player, but the lesson seems apropos on his 80th birthday. With his journey far from over, those who followed Palmer’s trail-blazed path to the PGA Tour owe the man from Latrobe, Pa., a collective thank you.

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