Arnold Palmer, no longer with us, still stands tall as an example of what we should all strive to be. He became one of the most endearing and trusted sports figures of all time, a status he parlayed into massive endorsement income long after his playing days were over.
Arnie passed Sunday afternoon at the age of 87 following several months of failing health after years of charging through life earning our admiration with thrilling go-for-broke golf and that endearing everyman image.
There was a key architect who molded his exemplary character and winsome public interaction. Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, a western Pennsylvania institution, relentlessly instilled in his children the proper respect for others, even if the lesson had to be applied to his famous golfing son at the height of Arnie’s global fame.
The year was 1964 and the tournament was the PGA Championship in Columbus, Ohio. The Palmers, father and son, had just returned from the course and Arnie was attempting to make a left turn into his hotel entrance across two lanes of heavy, oncoming traffic. A traffic cop waved him off and Arnie circled the block, only to find himself in the same predicament.
Arnie, then thirty-four, cranked down the window, poked his head out, and appealed to the policeman. “You know who I am? I’m Arnold Palmer and I need to turn in there to my hotel.”
Holding his ground, the unawed policeman tersely instructed Arnie to move along. The car shot forward and smoke billowed from Arnie’s ears. But his anger paled in comparison to the sudden eruption from his passenger.
“Son, I don’t care who you are–Arnold Palmer or who!” Deacon glowered. “You had no business trying to steamroll that policeman and he was perfectly right to make you go around!”
It was a booster shot of humility that has been only occasionally needed and rarely forgotten by Arnie.
“Deacon taught his son the straight and narrow of life,” said the late Mark McCormack, Arnie’s longtime agent, “and wanted to make damned sure his son stayed on it. He had a huge influence on Arnold throughout his career. We all are trying to prove ourselves to somebody or get the approval of somebody, and in Arnold’s case that somebody was his father.”
Right uo to and including his final days, Arnie spoke with ever-growing appreciation for the tough Scottish-Irish values instilled in him by his “Pap.” Incidents of boorish or disrespectful behavior by sports’contemporary bad boys invariably move Arnie to suggest the athlete in point should have had someone “to crack down on him like I had.”
Deacon Palmer continued to “crack down” on his son, when he thought necessary, right into the era when Arnie had passed his fortieth birthday and was a global celebrity. “He sure did,” Arnie affirmed, wide-eyed and nodding.
That is a peek at what is behind the enduring popularity Arnold Palmer fashioned, not just with his go-for-broke golf style, but the “every-man” persona his father instilled in him. Deacon Palmer was often introduced as the “proud father of Arnold Palmer,” though the designation often made him cringe. He didn’t mind the second billing, but once told a group: “Everybody here is proud of their sons. The thing is I have two daughters and two sons and Arnold is just one of them. I’m proud of them all.”
It was perhaps an understandable oversight on the part of the masses who were so familiar with the amazing accomplishments of the charismatic fairway hero who lifted golf from sort of an anonymous floating crap game to an immensely popular and well-heeled sport. Arnold Palmer is largely responsible for making pro golf what it is today, Deacon Palmer is largely responsible for making Arnie what he became.
“Pap didn’t just teach me how to play golf,” Arnie once understated. “He taught me discipline.”
And humility. Deacon was a man’s man. But also a gentleman’s gentleman. He believed in all the right things: God, country, hard work, respect for others, Lawrence Welk, shots-and-beer, and–most of all–humility.
The latter was most important in molding the personality that would whip millions of golf fans into frenzied devotion. As greenskeeper at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, Deacon stressed to his children they had no special privileges. They could not swim in the club pool, and talented young Arnold was not allowed on the course when member play was heavy.
The lesson helped Arnie maintain a perspective on his runaway fame while others in the public eye have tripped over their own egos. But even after Arnie had become king of the links, Deacon was still there to give his celebrity son an occasional booster shot.
“It isn’t everything to be up here all the time,” Arnie recently said, raising his hand eye-level to indicate the upper social strata. “That isn’t the whole name of the game to me. It’s fun to sometimes be down here with some people that are down to earth and different. I enjoy that. I enjoy hearing them and enjoy talking to them. They are just nice people who are going along and want to have a little fun and drink a little beer and enjoy life.
Often misstated is the premise that Arnold Palmer is equally at home in a New York boardroom, the Oval Office, or some grungy pool hall. Wrong. Arnie was much more at home trying to bank the eight-ball two rails against a guy wearing a greasy denim shirt and Caterpillar cap, with the next round of beers riding on the shot. There are any number of stories with Arnie circling a green-felt table, stalking his next shot in the back room of a roadhouse, matching his stickmanship against mill workers.
The pool-hall camaraderie story Arnie liked to share with friends involves a laborers’ bar on the west side of Orlando. The beer is cold, the jukebox is loud, and the pool tables become center stage after the four o’clock whistle blows. On a Friday afternoon in 1973, Palmer had missed the cut in the old Citrus Open a few miles away at Rio Pinar Country Club. With his father and a couple of friends in tow, Arnie eased his Cadillac into the row of pickup trucks outside the bar and headed inside to soothe the disappointment.
Arnie picked up the story:
The place had egg cartons on the ceiling and pool tables in the back. It was a pretty tough little bar. You had to sort of get in line to shoot pool with guys who had been digging ditches and putting up power lines and what have you. You’d work your way through the line for your turn and if you got beat, it was back to the end of the line.
There was one little guy who was really tough. He didn’t know who Arnold Palmer was and didn’t really give a crap. My father and the others just watched as I worked my way up and beat this one little guy. Well, I got hot and beat the whole line of guys. We’re playing for beers and by now I have a whole row of beers lined up. Now that one little guy’s turn comes up again and I beat him again.
We’d all been there about two hours by this time and had plenty of beer. The little guy walks over pretty deliberately and jams his cue stick to the floor. I figure now I may have to beat him in a fight. But he kinda puts one arm around me and says, “You can wear my shoes, any time.” To me, it’s the greatest compliment in the world. To gain the respect of someone like that is a challenge that many people will never understand.
This reflection on Arnold Palmer includes some excerpts from Larry Guest’s 1993 best-selling book, “ARNIE: Inside the Legend,” which was recently updated and re-published as an Amazon Kindle ebook. For three decades, Guest interacted professionally and socially with Palmer as lead sports columnist for The Orlando Sentinel.