When Arnold Palmer walks into a room heads still turn. His mere presence sets off a whispered wave of words. “There’s Arnie,” they say. “It’s the king,” others murmur.
Nearly a quarter century after his last PGA Tour victory, nearly a decade after last winning on the senior tour, Palmer remains the most popular player in the history of the game.
The buzz that Tiger Woods created in his few months as a professional golfer has followed Palmer for 42 years, since he won for the first time in 1955.
The true importance of Palmer to golf far transcends talent. His appeal was based on victories, surely, but it was also based on how he won--in a hard-charging, gambling, go-for-broke style.
Perhaps more important was the way he connected with fans. Palmer’s winning smile, easy charm and generosity with his time remain the models for all athletes on how to deal with success--and disappointment.
All athletes should learn from Palmer that they are not bigger than the game they play.
All athletes should learn from Palmer that the millions they make come from the ordinary people who watch them play.
All athletes should learn from Palmer that part of the price of success must be paid by never forgetting where you came from.
That’s what made Palmer’s announcement that he will return to competitive golf when he recovers from prostate cancer surgery such great news.
Golf needs Arnold Palmer.
Every measure of success and satisfaction Palmer has taken out of the game he has given back in the form of autographs, interviews, dinner appearances, charity work and just plain playing.
There have probably been only two golfers in the history of the game who reached outside the sport and appealed to the non-golf fan.
Bobby Jones, the only person to receive two ticker-tape parades on Broadway in New York, was as big in the 1920s as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange.
And Palmer, who had the perfect personality and style for the new media of television, captured the nation’s imagination in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Ben Hogan was intriguing. Jack Nicklaus was dominating. But Jones and Palmer were the complete package.
So when word got out that Palmer had cancer, the response from his fans was overwhelming.
“I’ve got mail from people that is unbelievable,” Palmer said last week at Bay Hill Golf Club in his first public appearance since cancer surgery Jan. 15. “From golfers and non-golfers. There is no way I could answer them all.”
Palmer stood behind the podium at Bay Hill still as dashing as ever with his white hair standing out in handsome contrast to his tanned, slightly lined face. He paused for a second and searched for just the right words to express how touched he was by the outpouring of affection.
“In some way I would like all the people to know how much I appreciate it,” Palmer said. “I want them all to know how much their cards and letters meant to me.”
There was a twinkle of amusement in Palmer’s eyes, offsetting the weariness around the edges.
“I have heard from prostate cancer people all over the United States,” he said. “Most of them said their handicaps went down after surgery. So maybe my handicap will go down.”
Asking Palmer when he will play competitive golf again is almost like asking him when he will take his next breath. The answer is: As soon as possible.
“I have every intention of being at Augusta,” Palmer said about the Masters. “I hope to play. I plan to play.”
Palmer won’t be able to swing a club again until March 1. He said it’s been more than 40 years since he’s gone that long without playing.
“If the doctors are right, and I think they are, I will be playing some competitive golf,” Palmer said. “As for when, it depends on my recovery and the state of my game.”
That’s Arnold. At age 67 he is talking about the state of his game. He has achieved riches that would make even Tiger Woods jealous yet he has no intention of walking away from the game.
“I’m happy,” Palmer said about the doctors’ assessment that he is likely now free of cancer. “I feel very fortunate.”
As should everyone who has had the chance to watch Palmer play. As should everyone who will once again see Palmer’s hard, awkward swing with the grimacing, head-ducking follow-through and the knock-kneed putting stance.
All athletes should take note of the reception Palmer receives when he steps onto the first tee at Augusta National in April. They will see the reward for being a nice guy.