The passing of golfing legend Arnold Palmer at 87 has rocked the sports world, but the King’s passing has left an indelible mark on the world we live in. He died in Pittsburgh, near the small town of Latrobe, where he grew up and lived until the time of his death.
Anyone over 30 knows his story. He wasn’t just a golfer. He was an icon who made people awe struck at his mere appearance. He was an established pilot, business person and mogul. More importantly, a children’s hospital in Orlando bears his name, as well as the airport in his hometown.
Mr. Palmer always made sure his autograph was legible and the same every time, and he received thousands upon thousands of autograph requests and pieces of fan mail. In a world of prima donna athletes these days, Palmer was easy to root for. He was kind, generous and incredibly friendly. My father taught me about him as a young kid in the 70s, although his competitive playing career was pretty much over. I would’ve loved to have been a member of Arnie’s Army. Palmer won more than 90 professional tournaments worldwide and seven major championships. He wasn’t the greatest golfer of all time. Many believe his biggest rival Jack Nicklaus was, with Tiger Woods a close second, but he was certainly the man who paved the way for golf as we know it today.
Palmer was Western Pennsylvania royalty. Latrobe County Club is less than a two hour drive from Wheeling and I’ve played the beautiful layout a handful of times thanks to my good friend D.P. Harris, a high school classmate and men’s basketball coach at St.Vincent College in Latrobe. Every fall, a few buddies and I would play in the Bearcat Open, an alum outing and school fundraiser. Even in my 40s, the anticipation of going to Latrobe CC got me excited, thinking maybe there’s a chance Mr.Palmer would be there. Latrobe CC is more like a shrine to Palmer, with pictures, trophies, memorabilia and an old school locker room. I took pictures of the facility and his locker, which has a few pair of shoes, shirts and hats in it. It looks like an ordinary locker, except it’s Mr.Palmer’s. One time, I passed him in between the locker room and pro shop and introduced myself to him. We shook hands and talked briefly. He had on his customary sweater over a golf shirt and slacks. While having a snack and beverage in the grille room, we sat at the table next to him. I watched every move he made and even wondered what he was eating. I’ll never forget meeting him and also talking about the Arnold Palmer course his design company built in Wheeling at Oglebay Park. I was working at WTRF-TV in the late 90s when I did a story with Rod Haley of Oglebay Park on where the course would be built. I remember driving through the woods on a golf cart with photographer Chris Kunicki and we checked out the layout. I was also there in 2000 when the course opened and Mr. Palmer came down to hit the first tee shot and to play nine holes. He met with the media and stayed for dinner. It was an amazing moment in Ohio Valley history and one in my broadcasting career that I’ll cherish. The Palmer Course at Oglebay is actually one of my favorites. It’s quite an honor to play the course named after the King. I think, sometimes, we take for granted we have a course in our backyard that features his name. In fact, my last round there, I fired a personal-best 69 and my foursome won an Oglebay Men’s Club event.
Palmer also was one of the founding fathers of the Golf Channel, and owned Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, where the PGA Tour plays the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard each March. He was always a fixture at the tournament. It will certainly be strange NOT to see him on the 18th green greeting the winner. The Masters will be never be the same without Mr.Palmer either. He loved that tournament and I loved watching the old footage of him playing Augusta National and even in retirement, playing the Par 3 Contest and hitting the ceremonial tee shot to start the tournament on Thursday morning.
The pro players these days need to thank Mr.Palmer for the millions they make. Even though I didn’t develop a love for golf well into my 30s, I absolutely understand he laid the foundation for the PGA Tour, the PGA Tour Champions (formerly the Champions Tour) and Web.Com Tour, in the 50s and 60s. Tiger may have carried the torch at the turn of the century, but Arnie and Jack started it all more than 60 years ago. Mr. Palmer’s brand, his colorful-umbrella emblem and legendary name will live on forever. Rest in peace, Mr.Palmer. The world is a better place for having you in it.