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ORLANDO – The day after Webb Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic, it was logical to call up Arnold Palmer for a follow-up story.
The two are fellow Wake Forest Deacons, after all, and Simpson played his college golf on the Arnold Palmer scholarship.
Digits were punched and Doc Giffin, Palmer’s long-time right-hand man, picked up on first ring. There was a 15-second pause.
“Arnie’s on speakerphone.”
Think about that. In less than half a minute, Palmer, one of the most popular players the game has ever seen, a man who influenced golf so much and the lives of so many, who would become a King and lead his own army, took the call immediately without appointment and jubilantly talked about Simpson and how proud he was of the young man’s victory.
That was Arnie.
He often spoke to how much the game gave to him and in turn, his responsibility to give back. He gave back. And gave and gave and gave.
We’re coming up on five years now since Palmer passed on the eve of Ryder Cup week in 2016 at age 87. At this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where a 13-foot bronze statue of Palmer in full swing stands tall by the first tee, his legacy will be remembered and celebrated as it is every year.
Arnie should be celebrated every week of the year.
“We still very much feel his spirit and his presence here at his own event, but also in the game of golf in general,” Henrik Stenson said. “So much work for charity. He’s a huge figure in the sport and big thanks for everything he did throughout his career and after.”
Arnie was there for one and all, from kids to the blue-collar worker to captains of industry to Presidents of the United States. He was the accessible common man, a philanthropist who raised millions for charities.
He was an experienced aviator who took flight on golf courses around the world as one of the game’s best to ever play. He was the bold, telegenic golfer with thick forearms and a thin waist, a whirlybird follow through and pigeon-toed putting stance who burst out of black-and-white TV sets and took the game to the masses while winning 62 titles on the PGA Tour, including seven majors.
He was a trailblazing marketing giant, a top-notch golf designer. Was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2012, helped found the Golf Channel, helped usher in the Champions Tour.
He was Arnie, a folk hero with a driver in hand and a handshake after the round, who signed as many autographs, posed for as many pictures, chatted with as many fans in the galleries as any golfer who hit a golf ball.
“Arnold Palmer was the everyday man’s hero,” Jack Nicklaus once said. “From the modest upbringing, Arnold embodied the hard-working strength of America.”
Tiger Woods, a record eight-time winner of Arnie’s tournament whose two children were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, which is near the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, said Palmer meant everything to golf.
“There was no one more important to the game than Arnold,” Woods once said. “He was a friend, we shared a lot of laughs, he was a legend.”
Jan 7, 1961; Los Angeles, CA, USA: FILE PHOTO; Arnold Palmer in action during the Los Angeles Open at Rancho Golf Course. Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY NETWORK
Palmer was a prolific writer, too. For decades, he sent thousands of letters to all winners on the PGA Tour, Champions Tour, LPGA tour and Web.com Tour. Some winners of collegiate events, too, as some winners of overseas events. Whether hand-written or typed, each was personalized.
Of the many letters Rory McIlroy received, the one that arrived after he won the first of his four major championships in the 2011 U.S. Open, meant the most.
“You are now in a position where you have the opportunity to give back to the game that is making you famous, and I hope, and certainly feel sure, that you will live up to that obligation in the months and years ahead. Just continue to be yourself. Don’t change. Sincerely, Arnold Palmer”
“Those were good words of wisdom and words to live by,” said McIlroy, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2018.
Palmer meant so much to Rickie Fowler that he drove some three hours in 2016 to tell him he couldn’t play in the tournament that year.
“It was obviously a tough decision. It was all schedule-related,” Fowler said. “Just thought it would mean a lot if I at least made that announcement or discussed it and shared it with Arnold in person. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
“It was like I was breaking up with a long-time girlfriend or something.
“He was a little bit in shock, but he understood.”
That was Arnie.