In 1974 when I was 12 years old, Arnold Palmer was changing caddies and I wrote a letter applying for the position. I felt certain the description of my skills and stated adoration for him were going to clinch the job for me over all other candidates.
By the time I was old enough to learn about Palmer, he was already beyond his prime. How many children today will knight as their hero someone whose prime happened 10 years before they knew of the player? That decision illustrates the appeal of Arnold Palmer. Most people would not list Palmer as the greatest golfer of all time because he won “only” 7 major tournaments. Jack Nicklaus currently has the most with 18. I realize that is a large gap, but I content that Palmer was the better golfer.
Palmer’s career is, perhaps, equated to someone like Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio finished his career with 2,214 hits, 361 home runs, and 1,537 RBIs. Many players have surpassed these statistics, but many fans would still argue that DiMaggio was the best center-fielder to ever play the game.
What stopped Palmer from winning more majors was, ironically, his popularity and the military service he volunteered for while a college student at Wake Forest University. He was about 25 when he began his professional career. By that age, Nicklaus had already won 4 majors.
But Arnold Palmer paved the way so that there could be a Jack Nicklaus and later a Tiger Woods. When Palmer started playing golf was not a popular sport followed widely. I love Vin Scully’s remark that ‘In a sport that was high society, Arnold Palmer made it ‘High Noon.’
Palmer’s popularity was such that he simply could not miss a tournament. If he were not to play for a week, that tournament would plummet in interest and tickets purchased. Tournament sponsors would beg and plead with Palmer not to miss their event. So, Palmer played, and thus, modern golf was born.
This constant play did allow him to amass 62 career wins compared with Nicklaus’s 73. But no golfer today plays the tournament schedule Palmer once did for good reason. Top golfers today take a week or two off before every major tournament so that they can focus on that single golf course and that tournament. Palmer was not afforded that luxury. While Nicklaus was able to prepare for major tournaments, Palmer was playing lesser tournaments, building the popularity of golf.
Golfers today also know how risky and potentially debilitating an injury can be, so they pull out of a tournament with the slightest injury. Again, Palmer’s role in the game of golf demanded that he play, hurting or not.
Arnold Palmer’s magic was a combination of his boy-next-door personality, his rugged good looks, and a style of golf that was daring. A sport that was once considered genteel and, to be honest, boring, suddenly became electrifying as Palmer would pull off amazing shot after amazing shot. His aura solidified at the 1960 U.S. Open where he came from 7 shots back in the final round shooting a 65, then the lowest final round ever recorded in U.S. Open history. Incidentally, a 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus finished second.
Palmer leaves behind a legacy of philanthropy including his funding of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation. One generation knew him as the face of Quaker State Oil, and another generation knows him as the face of Xarelto.
So, let’s lift a glass of “Arnold Palmer” (the drink he also made famous) in honor of the life and career of the greatest golfer who ever lived.