Ultimate gesture players can make is living like Arnie


What comes next is a week and a year of tributes.

At this week’s Ryder Cup, flags will fly at half-mast. There will be a ceremony on the first tee. There will be talk of competing with his inimitable “spirit,” and some of the contentiousness will subside, and maybe the players will even wear umbrella pins or cardigans.

At his tournament next March, a star-studded field will assemble.

At the Masters, Augusta National will recognize the missing member of the Big 3.

At the Memorial Tournament, Jack Nicklaus will pay homage to his dear friend and rival.

And then …

Well, and then it will be up to today’s players to honor Arnold Palmer’s legacy. They should do so simply – by trying to emulate Arnie.

Palmer, after all, was many things to many people. A swashbuckling champion. Showman. Pioneer. Businessman. Philanthropist. But to this observer, at least, he was also an ideal.

It wasn’t just the simple, genuine, personal gestures, the thumbs-ups and hand-written letters and eye contact. Even though he became a king himself, he still had an innate ability to connect on a basic human level with everyone he met. This was true of all of his interactions, no matter if they were with his peers, the public, the press, even presidents. He was the down-to-earth superstar, the larger-than-life figure who actually cared about yours.

That’s why these days, weeks and months ahead are an important period of reflection for the current pros.

There is an ever-widening divide between fans and the stars of our game, the mega-millionaires who are safe in their cocoon, protected by managers and publicists and image specialists. The money has never been greater – Rory McIlroy deposited $11.44 million Sunday; Palmer made $1.86 million in his career – and the lifestyles never more different. Each year, it seems, they only drift further away, the connection becoming more tenuous.

And so, moving forward, will our stars use their fame, their fortune and their status to shield themselves from the public, from the fans that enriched their fabulous lives? Or will they stay grounded and humble and relatable – will they stay connected – the way Palmer did?

Though Tiger Woods might be most responsible for padding players’ wallets, the game’s growth and popularity is all Arnie. With his charisma, go-for-broke style and everyman appeal, he brought an elite, country-club sport to the masses at the dawn of the TV era, then paved the way for athletes in all sports to earn millions in endorsements.

Even now, more than 40 years after his last victory, his influence is still visible on Tour. Phil Mickelson practically modeled his Hall of Fame career after Palmer, not just with his swing-from-the-heels game but also the relationship with his adoring fans, looking each in the eye as he signs autographs for an hour after his rounds. Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have all made concerted efforts to engage with fans, to bring them closer to the game they love, even when they’re pulled in new directions that complicate that very connection.

“We all try,” Mickelson said Monday, “but we never live up to his standard. He made the difficult look easy.”  

Already there have been hundreds of remembrances, hundreds of moments, large and small, that players and fans have shared about their time with Arnie. There will be plenty more this week, at the Ryder Cup. There will be more still next year, at the majors. And then the onus will be on the players to decide for themselves how to honor his legacy.

The most obvious is to plan their schedules around his tournament, to reconfigure their lives, to make sure they’re at Bay Hill March 16-19. But even more significantly, they can pay tribute to the single-most important figure in the game’s history by by engaging, by letting us in, by connecting with the game and the people who made it all possible. By striving for the ideal.

No, there won’t be – can’t be – another Arnold Palmer. But what if they all tried?