He's been The King ever since Ike was president.
He was the first to fly his own airplane. He made golf cool. He commanded his own army. He is golf's most beloved player, ever.
First saw Arnold Palmer in 1968. My college roommate thought it would be cool to hitchhike to his hometown of Greensboro from our school, East Carolina, and watch Arnie play in the Greater Greensboro Open.
It was the week of April 4, 1968—the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The South was in turmoil, and there we were standing out on the highway with our thumbs in the air. Two stupid kids. In a ridiculous turn of luck, a guy offered us a ride. He was going to Greensboro and in a "no way" twist of fate, it turned out that my roommate had dated his daughter in high school. He delivered us right to the front door of Allen's house.
The weather was spectacular that Saturday at the GGO. We blended into Palmer's massive gallery and simply enjoyed the day. In another "no way" twist of fate, the Sunday edition of the Greensboro newspaper had a huge picture on the front page of the sports section of Palmer's gallery with Arnie in the background. In the foreground, larger than life, there were the two of us in our matching sweaters and turtleneck shirts, watching Palmer play.
Little did I know that was the harbinger of my future. Less than six years later, I'd be making my living as a golf writer, and I would come to know Palmer well. He loved the golf writers. He hung out with us, laughed with us, and if you were fortunate enough, you'd end up having a Rolling Rock with Arnold.
Men's Journal magazine once published its ultimate "bucket list" of things to do before you "kick the bucket," and one of the items on there was "Shake hands with Arnold Palmer."
Back then, as a young 20-something writer, hanging around the 40-something Palmer was pretty cool. It was at this Bay Hill event that The King removed a popular beer brand from my hand and replaced it with a Rolling Rock from his beloved home of Latrobe, Pa. and the Latrobe Brewing Company, the maker of Rolling Rock.
He would tell you to call him Arnie. That's the way he was, the way he still is. He is larger than life and is a man who honestly cares about people. He loves this game of golf like no one. He still plays in the Saturday games at Bay Hill.
When you shake hands with Palmer, you get a real man's handshake. He has huge hands and a grip that could crush walnuts. Back in those days, hanging out with Arnold was a given. He promoted his club and his tournament after it moved to Bay Hill in 1979. He took an event that had previously been staged at the sleepy Rio Pinar Golf Club and brought it to the big time.
The Florida Citrus Open at old Rio Pinar looked like a minor league event compared to what would be built at Arnie's club. He took great care of us, and if you needed anything at all, Arnie wanted you to make sure and ask. He told you that personally, and he thanked us for being there.
It was a great time to be a golf writer. You actually got to know a guy like Arnold Palmer. He was golf's first multi-gazillionaire, but Arnold never wore his success on his sleeve. He always had the common touch.
One of the most amazing things is to watch Palmer sign an autograph. It takes about a second and there in perfect penmanship is his signature, easy to read, easily the most recognizable in sports. Arnold used to tell younger players to give a good autograph as opposed to an undistinguished scribble.
Arnold had an incredible way with his fans. After a round, he'd sign his scorecard then stand in the middle of what would seem like a sea of followers. He would sign and sign and sign some more until everyone was accommodated, no matter how long it took. That's one thing about him that never ceased to amaze me. Arnold cared.
Arnold also cared about the tour and the future of the tour and the conduct on tour. He once told a long-haired rookie to get a haircut. The guy's name was Tom Watson.
This week's Bay Hill tournament is bigger than ever and the course is more spectacular than ever, but in the end, it's not about the course, it's not about Phil or some guy named Eldrick.
This is the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And it took some real urging by Arnie's friends and associates for him to give the nod to put his name on it. It bears repeating, but Arnold simply doesn't wear his fame or success on his sleeve.
A young writer found his way easier because of Arnold. In another, unbelievable twist of fate I was able to do a favor for Arnold.
At the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, I was about to go in the locker room when Arnold came up. He had just finished his practice round. He left his player's badge on his visor, which was hanging on his bag, which wasn't anywhere near. The security guard wouldn't let him in the locker room. Can you believe that?
Came to Arnold's instant rescue, produced an extra press badge from my pocket and handed it to Arnold, who showed it to the clueless guard as I chirped, "It's okay, he's with me!"
Arnold and I laughed about that for the next five minutes, and he bought me a Rolling Rock.
Arnold never even said a cross word to that guard. He didn't play the "I'm-Arnold-Palmer" card. And I laughed and kidded Arnold and said, "Hey, it's nice to see that at least one person in the country doesn't recognize you."
I don't miss covering today's tour. Too many guys caught up in their own world.
No Arnold Palmers, that's for certain.
No, I don't miss covering the tour, but I do miss hanging out with Arnold.
Those were the best of days.
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