Sunday, September 25, 2016

Arnold Palmer: Long Live the King


Steve Breen - San Diego Union-Tribune
Hearing the sad news today that Arnold Palmer has died, I was immediately taken back to that poignant Sunday 12 years ago when the iconic American golfer played his final round at Augusta National.

Watching Arnie walk the 18th fairway at Augusta, his favorite golf course, back in 2004, I was reminded why this man was arguably the nation’s most beloved athlete so far past his own athletic prime: Arnie was the definitive American father figure. The adoring tributes to Arnie that we're already seeing this evening are appropriate, and moving.

Larger than life, but with a blue-collar ethic that always made him a favorite of the man on the street, Palmer, who was both icon and everyman, possessed the attributes every kid wishes for in a father. Charismatic, eternally youthful, and still competitive into his 80's, Palmer had the rare gift of true kindness. He remained humble and approachable even though he attained great wealth and living-legend status.

To his credit and my amazement, Arnie never adopted a hint of the elitism sometimes associated with his sport and with great fame.

Amid the familiar roar of his adoring seven-deep “Army” of fans, Arnie's final official round at Augusta more than a decade ago was one of those rare and transcendent sports moments that combine history and pathos.


Broadcast live on the USA Network by the CBS broadcasting crew, which to its credit knew enough to say little, and shown later that evening on every sportscast in the country, Palmer's last Masters, which rightly eclipsed any news of the actual tourny contenders that day and even to some degree Phil Mickelson's eventual epic victory that year, must have generated a variety of emotions in viewers of all ages.

Arnie's final round back in 2004 wasn’t just about golf. It was about the bittersweet and inevitable passage of time. And for me, it was also about fatherhood. I suspect I wasn’t alone in associating Arnie's final Masters with my own life, and my own dad.

It was both compelling and painful to watch Arnie accept his fate and take his characteristically classy final bow at the tournament he’s loved so much and to which he’s given so much for more than 50 years.

I remember feeling a surge of emotion as he tapped in his final putt that afternoon. Not only because he represents a decency and civility that is fast approaching extinction in our popular culture, but because Palmer was my dad’s hero, and my dad was mine. 

As Arnie slowly walked off the 18th green, I hoped the moment wouldn’t end, just as you wish your father could live forever.

“It’s not fun to know that it’s over,” Palmer said in an emotional interview with CBS just after his final round. “But it’s been a great week, and I’m happy. The fans have been, well, goodness, they have been so supportive.” After a pause, he added tearfully but with a resolved smile, “This is difficult for me. I’m a sentimental slob.”

MADE FOR TELEVISION
Arnold Palmer was one of the first true stars of televised sports. With his perpetual tan, windswept charm, likability, and remarkable shot-making prowess, he popularized golf the way no other athlete ever popularized a sport, before or since. 

Now known simply as The King, Arnie, who was dubbed by GQ one of the "25 Coolest Athletes of All Time," won the Masters four times, the British Open twice, the U.S. Open once, and 92 championships in all. But his on-course record only begins to describe what he did for golf.

The most popular player in the game’s history, Palmer was as important a figure in 20th century sports as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas. But he never acted like an icon. Somehow, amid the idolatry these last six decades, he maintained a good nature.

He never passed an autograph seeker without signing the autograph and engaging in a conversation and making actual eye contact with his fans.

“He was a legend who walked among us,” Gary Player, another golf legend, once said of Palmer. "He gave of himself. If you give to the fans, they give back. A lot of athletes are aloof. But Arnold was always aware of the man in the street."

Defying age if only for fleeting moments, Palmer exhibited a little of the old magic in his final round at the Masters in 2004. On the infamous par three 12th hole, he knocked his tee shot within seven feet of the pin.

The gallery loved it, I loved it, and Arnie, as fierce a competitor as there ever was in any sport, undoubtedly got as much enjoyment out of it, if not more, than from any of the many ovations he received.

Palmer never lost that will to win. Virtually until his sad death today, Arnie, who in 2012 was named an "honorary starter" at Augusta along with his close friends and rivals Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, still felt in his eternally youthful heart that he could win a tournament, any tournament.

Each time he stepped up to the tee box he still thought he could hit a better shot than you. But he knew his body no longer did what his brain still begged it to do. And who can’t relate to that?

Palmer, whose Augusta Swan Song was one of those bittersweet, treasured TV moments that make you reflect on your own life, was a father figure for us all. But for me, he was and is even more.

My father, too, was charismatic and kind and lived his life with great passion and dignity, and though he loved a lot of things including his family, music, sports and broadcasting, his greatest lifelong passion, like Arnie's, was golf.

A television personality himself for 50 years as well as a longtime newspaper golf columnist, my dad was a voracious and good golfer (a 3 handicap) who had the great pleasure of meeting Palmer on several occasions. Arnie never disappointed my father, who sadly died in 2002, just days after playing 18 holes.

At his service, along with lots of pictures of family and friends, stood one large black-and-white photograph of my dad and Arnie on the golf course together, smiling.

When asked what his own late father would say about his remarkable 50-year run at Augusta, Palmer, who had two daughters and many grandchildren and whose caddie during his final Master’s appearance was his 16-year-old grandson, answered softly, “I guess he’d say the same thing he said the first time I won the Masters: 'You did good, boy.'” 

Precisely what every boy wants to hear from his dad, these words are a reminder that every man who is a father, even the heroes among us, is also someone’s son. Long live The King. 

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