Author’s note: The following piece, edited here by me for length, appeared in Vol. 11, No. 7, pp. 2 and 3, of the November/December 1984 issue of THE GRASSROOTS (chapter publication of the WGCSA). I was 38 at the time I wrote it and at the end of my 12th year as a golf course superintendent. It struck me how true, 32 years later almost to the day, those words about Arnold Palmer were today.
In the 32 years since then, I have watched Arnie play golf probably another dozen times, stopped at the Latrobe Country Club almost that often (once to see the Toro tractor that was used in the Pennzoil ad), and had the exceptional privilege to sit in his Bay Hill office and chat with him a few years ago. I’ll never forget, as I entered his office, how he stood up, extended his hand and said, “Hi! I’m Arnold Palmer.” One of my prized possessions is a self-published book he signed and gave to me.
Like millions of others, I was profoundly sad the day he died, and his memorial service was like none other I’ve seen. This is a man we will not forget.
Everyone should have a hero. I have one and I am proud to admit it. Age shouldn’t be a factor – one is never too old to have a hero. There are so many exemplary and outstanding people in our society that finding one to suit your age and interests is easy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hero. They have changed over the years, but for the last 10 or so the same man has been the focus of my hero worshipping.
My first recollections of heroes go back to the late 1950s when the Milwaukee Braves were the terror of baseball. So many of the Braves’ players were my heroes – Aaron, Mathews, Crandall, Spahn, Burdette and Burton. But my favorite player was Joe Adcock. He was a big man and a good hitter. I can remember the day he hit four home runs in one game. Joe was a better hero than any of the other Braves and even better than Mickey Mantle as far as I was concerned.
Things started to change in 1959 and 1960. Vince Lombardi moved to Green Bay and started to coach the Packers. At a time when I was playing football in high school and when the Packers were winning lots of football games, baseball and Joe Adcock faded. The Packers had lots of great players worthy of hero worship – Hornung, Taylor, McGee, Kramer, Gregg, Thurston, Nitscke and Starr. Poor Joe didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough news about Bart Starr. Bright, aggressive and cool under pressure describe him best. He was a great player and he had a great name. He did the same for thousands of kids across the country.
I never felt limited to just one hero. Often several people captured my attention for extended periods. What young American couldn’t feel a certain amount of awe over President Kennedy? He was our youngest president and a war hero. He was courageous in his decisions and actions. He was a particularly special person to me because, during the presidential primary campaign in Wisconsin in 1959 against Hubert Humphrey, he was in my hometown and I got his autograph.
There was a period of time, from the late ’60s until the early ’70s, that I didn’t think much about heroes. I was either in the Army in Vietnam, starting a family, finishing college at the University of Wisconsin or getting my professional feet wet. There didn’t seem to be much time for it. I lost track of Joe Adcock’s career, John Kennedy was gone and Bart Starr retired as a player. But in 1973 I was paying more attention to golfers, for obvious reasons. Managing a golf course tends to narrow and focus one’s interest in games. An interest in a game begets an interest in the players and, slowly and subtly, there was a gathering of my intrigue in one and only one player – Arnold Palmer. My admiration and respect for him have grown by leaps and since then and he has been the perfect hero for me. I suspect he always will be.
Like millions of others, I was profoundly sad the day he died, and his memorial service was like none other I’ve seen. This is a man we will not forget.”
Although he had passed his zenith when I started to take interest in him, that didn’t seem to matter. Undoubtedly, for myself or for any other golf course superintendent, the greatest trait Palmer has is his love for golf courses. He once wrote, “A golf course is an intoxicating place.” Music to the ears of a man (me) who will spend many of the working years of his life on a golf course. He grew up on a golf course and lived in a house near the third hole at Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania. Arnold’s dad Deacon, was the “Greenkeeper” at Latrobe when Arnie was born in 1929 and soon after that became the golf pro as well, a “temporary” economy move by the club during the depression years. Deke Palmer not only gave golf lessons, he mowed fairways. As a youngster, Arnold worked in the golf shop and on the golf course. This had to influence the affection for golf courses he carries today. I think it is this connection Palmer has with my profession that makes him so special to me. Unlike so many other golf professionals who conjure up hatred for the golf course in order that they may “beat” it, Palmer has never lost his deep affection for them. He has put his knowledge of the game together with his love for golf courses and designed some of the world’s greatest layouts. It was also great to learn, in 1983 from Arnold himself, that his father was a longtime member of the GCSAA. His brother Jerry is the golf course superintendent at Latrobe Country Club. And Arnie didn’t hurt us when he did the series of ads for Pennzoil using the Toro tractor on the golf course.
The GCSAA has done many great things over the dozen or so years that I have been a member, but none of those comes even close to the stroke of genius they showed when they selected Arnold Palmer as the first recipient of the Old Tom Morris Award. He was the perfect choice, the same one I would have made. And when Bob Hope received the 1984 award in Las Vegas, Palmer was there to observe the proceedings. It is a wonderful feeling to know that he has respect for us and our profession.
Not only has he been kind to our profession, he has been great for the game of golf and probably done more for it than any other man. He is able not only to capture great respect for his game abilities, but also for his warmth, honesty and kindness. I think no one in golf ever has or ever will match this man for his charisma, his personality or his verve. His playing style is courageous and he approaches tough spots with bravado. He probably is the most determinedly aggressive player the game has known and he has an absolutely transparent desire to win. But he is also the ultimate sportsman – not a crier or a complainer. This past summer, he missed qualifying for what would have been his 32nd consecutive U.S. Open. The USGA has a requirement that he qualify, even though he is a past winner. Did he object? Nope. His only comment was, “I missed. I had every opportunity to make it. I feel that if you can’t play, you shouldn’t play.” A great man with a great attitude.
Reporters like him. He always gives them the time they need and will talk with them, good round or bad, win or lose. And the reason “Arnie’s Army” became such a big thing on the pro tour was that this man always has (and still does, as I can personally attest to) signed autographs during a round of golf, almost no matter what.
The image of Arnie on the golf course is legend, too. The sight of him tugging at his glove, hitching his trousers up, flicking his cigarette into the rough, walking up to the ball and hitting it quickly and powerfully has thrilled millions of people, none more than me. And I always appreciated the way he tastefully dressed, avoiding the “distracting” clothes some golf pros like to wear. He always exudes class. I am fairly serious in my hero worshipping. I have seen Arnold play golf three times. And believe me, there is nothing like standing so close to him that you can actually hear him ask his caddie for a club, to be so close that you are sprinkled by bits of sod after he has drilled a shot with his patented controlled lunge.
I have gotten Arnie’s autograph on five different occasions, once even asking him to sign a can of Pennzoil for me, which he promptly did. I collect books by him and about him. Several pictures of the man hang in my office. And next year, during our annual trip out East, Cheryl and I plan on making a side trip to Latrobe and visit the golf course where this marvelous man started his unparalleled career in golf.
He is a great man – greater than great and bigger than life. If you are looking for a hero, you’ll never do any better than bestowing that honor on Arnold Palmer.
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