2016 was a bad year for losing golfers, losing the two Christy O’Connor’s, uncle and nephew, was very sad news as was the passing of the much-adored Arnold Palmer. Everyone of a certain age felt that Arnold was his or her personal friend. Arnie went out of his way to make them feel that way too and I’m not sure if golf will ever again have somebody so personally loved? Arnold was a good man who was good for golf.
When I was awarded the dubiously perceived title: Golf Nut of the Year (GNOTY) in 2001, it was regarded as a joke by some. Arnold Palmer was not one of them. After all, he was the Honorary Patron of the Golf Nut Society. One of his closest friends and the so-called Commander-in-Chief of Arnie’s Army, Dr. Howdy Giles, was a GNOTY before me in 1986.
My GNOTY Award gave me notoriety in the USA and access to Giles and Palmer whenever I wanted it. It led to an open-ended invitation to ‘come to Bay Hill anytime for a game with the King.’ It was also one of the reasons why I was invited to submit three articles to KINGDOM Arnie’s quarterly publication distributed to the ‘hundreds’ of Palmer golf facilities worldwide and for which I was generously compensated.
My first encounter with Arnie occurred at Palma Ceia CC in Tampa, Florida in 1965 during my student days. Arnie was at PCCC to play in a well-attended exhibition match with Jack Nicklaus, Doug Sanders and a local pro named JC Goosie. As a member, I was (legitimately) in the locker room changing my shoes when Arnold and I ‘rendezvoused’ accidentally. Arnold, it transpired, was in the habit of greeting everyone and he made no exception in my case. Having no idea what to say, I managed to mumble that I was a student from Ireland. Arnie soared into raptures talking about Portmarnock and Christy O’Connor (Senior). My golf knowledge was nowhere near full throttle yet and I didn’t ‘rise to the occasion’ by titillating him with anecdotes about Christy Senior and the famous Dublin links where Arnold had partnered Sam Snead in the Canada (a.k.a. World) Cup in 1960.
Eleven years later, I attempted to pre-qualify for The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale (won by Johnny Miller.) I didn’t make it but was on the reserves waiting list and had access to the competitor’s parking lot. There we were, my wife and I, sitting on the grass beside our car having a picnic when who pulls up beside us in a bright red limo only Arnie and his wife, Winnie.
“Good to see you, pro! How the hell ya doin’?” was the greeting, so typical of Arnie – always going out of his way to make sure you knew he liked you. We spoke for several minutes with him treating me as if I were ‘serious competition.’ I was able to fill him in on the health of Himself (COC) and Portmarnock this time. Guess who we followed onto the course to watch play a practice round: Arnie in the company of Sam Snead, Curtis Strange (still an amateur) and Gary Player – all well worth watching they were too.
Third time was a charm. I travelled to Portrush in 1995 with my 15-years old son, David, to watch the British Seniors Open. Arnie was in the field. In the tented village a charity had set up a small putting course. £1 for two go’s – if you sank one effort you won a golf ball; sink two for three balls. Arnold happened to be on hand making the presentations. David was bursting to have a go so I offered up £1. Before you could say ‘Arnie’s Army,’ David had rattled four putts in quick succession into the cup that looked as big as a bucket to his young eyes. At this stage, Arnie intervened and with a broad grin handed David a box with a 15-balls in it, saying: “Take that young man outa here fast before he ‘putts’ us out of business!”
About 24-hours later, we were standing at the back of the 10th tee when Arnie arrived. He spotted David, remembered him and gave him a big smile and a thumb’s up sign. Can you imagine any other pro doing that? I can’t. Arnie was a true people’s person and the friendliest golfer I ever met but behind it all he was a tough competitor who liked to win.
Palmer’s relationship with TV was crucial to the development of pro golf. His dashing, spectacular style caught the imagination. TV, the medium, would never have been able to ‘sell golf’ without the heroics and antics of Arnold. Whether he won or lost, it was always exciting and dramatic. Trouble shots were Palmer’s speciality. They brought out the swashbuckler in him. “Trouble,” Palmer said, “is bad to get into but a lot of fun to get out of. If you can hit it, you can hole it!”
Arnie’s health was not good early last year and his passing in September came as no surprise. I had always wanted to have one of Arnie’s ‘signature’ umbrella lapel pins so, I sent a message to our mutual friend, Howdy Giles asking if he could procure one for me and he duly obliged. I have been seen around and about proudly wearing my Arnold Palmer umbrella pin in remembrance of a truly great person and golfer.