The course will be left alone to rot and deal with the wind off the shoreline and the fiery waves crashing against the rocks. An errant scrap of paper will blow by like a tumbleweed to remind the sky above that we were once here. The King, it can be said, is dead.
There is a Norman Rockwell that hangs in the hallway of Arnold Palmer’s single-story home/office. The residence, referred to as the Golf House, is directly across the street from the clubhouse at Latrobe Country Club in his Pennsylvania hometown. On the occasion of a 2011 walking tour of the property, television’s Charlie Rose paused by the work and admired it for a moment.
“Not many people have a Norman Rockwell hanging in their home,” the interviewer said. “And I don’t know anyone who has one — that’s of them.”
The right side of Palmer’s cheek turned up to reveal his signature crooked aw-shucks grin. The golfer then cleared his throat, an act of sincerity. “I’m glad someone remembers who he was…and I’m happy there’s also such a nice likeness of me from then.”
The pair continued on the tour, to Palmer’s office decorated with honorary degrees, handshakes with all of the presidents of the last 70 years, model plane replicas of the aircraft he piloted around the world and images of his family including a recent photo of his grandson, Samuel Palmer Saunders, himself a 29-year professional golfer.
The duo went on to Palmer’s tinkering shed, the place Carl Spackler will go the moment after he receives total consciousness. Thousands of clubs lay stacked upon one another like a lost catacomb of an ancient linksman’s tomb, each humming with a story.
…But there was something about that pause in front of the painting. A brightness, perhaps, in Palmer’s face knowing, maybe subconsciously, that few masterworks have the ability to transcend time.
It got me thinking, it’s a shame then that we can’t freeze our athletes or their achievements like paintings. The surprise few seconds of greatness that athletes use to elevate from life on earth are ever fleeting. When it passes, they come back down to join us, and eventually leave us for good as Arnie did Sunday at age 87. Eternal yet ever human.
He was the son of a greens keeper and a seven-time major champion. More than this, he was the athlete who bridged the gap between what sports was then, mostly quiet and immediate and passive, to what it is today: a major enterprise based on the name-as-brand
Arnie did not win the most majors. He was not even in the top six. Those who are are named Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson. He never had a Grand Slam. And he never hoisted the PGA Championship trophy, not once. But ask anyone, especially the most faithful weekend duffer or saddened ball striker, and he or she will tell you Arnie, indeed, was The King.
Why is that?
It’s simple. Arnold Palmer loved people almost as much as he loved to play. There was empathy in his voice and, though cocksure especially in his youth, his heart beat with a kind of extra muscle of kindness that enabled him to reach past the gallery ropes and through the camera lens and touch those he knew either couldn’t be there or couldn’t do what he did.
He didn’t set out to become the brand. He became the brand because he was who he was, whether the camera lights were on or off, whether the leftover electromagnetic zzzz of the microphone after the press conference was the only sound in the room beyond his laughter from the locker, whether ironically he ordered his signature drink a “virgin Arnold Palmer”, it was genuine all the time.
Arnie had on…and off days too, all golfers do. Only his were legendary.
He was the golfer who came from seven shots on the final day to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado but also blew a final-day seven-shot lead to fall in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
LA Times columnist and friend Jim Murray once wrote: “He was the Perils of Pauline. Every round was a cliffhanger. Continued next week.”
There was a sense with Palmer that no matter how much you smile and wish for another result, sometimes you end up in the water. Sometimes in the trap. Sometimes, you don’t make the cut.
Win or lose, Arnie always carried an extra story in his bag. He knew we don’t necessarily watch or play golf to see who’s going to win or lose, but to tell the tale. This was the unwritten theme of Arnie’s career. Even in retirement, when he founded the Golf Channel, he didn’t do soundbites, he did conversations.
And he kept the conversation going.
Charlie Rose paused in Palmer’s study after examining the old pro’s first tour victory scorecard, framed with a black and white photo of a golden blond young man beaming above it. Rose asked if Palmer would love to take a crack at today’s game, against the elite athletes from around the globe raised with trainers, dieticians, swing coaches and psychologists. For a moment, Arnie paused and looked down like you do when you’ve got something to say but don’t know if you want to say it — or how.
What next? A stumble down memory lane? An homage to a simpler time? A living Rockwell reaching back into a magic bag of sweetness that never really existed?
Instead, Arnie was, as ever, plain and honest.
“You’re G-damn right I would,” he said.