Arnold Palmer: A legend worth thanking and emulating

palmer-847-gettyI learned in a text from a 16-year-old golfer last night that Arnold Palmer had died yesterday at the age of 87.

Then he simply wrote: Legend.

While it was sad that the King had passed on, it made me feel good that a teenage golfer was aware of the importance of Arnold Palmer to golf specifically and arguably to sports generally.

Palmer is the single greatest influence in the growth of golf around the world. When Palmer hit his stride as a tour player winning tournaments and majors in the 60s, it coincided with the explosion of television as a cultural force and the increased coverage for golf.

Before Palmer, golf was largely a country club sport in North America, but Palmer had an everyman’s persona that was endearing and inspiring. With his shirts chronically untucked, a cigarette often dangling from his lips and the way he constantly hitched his pants, Palmer had a charisma and authenticity that struck a chord in millions of people who wouldn’t normally be attracted to the blueblood pastime.

“Arnold Palmer didn’t make golf,” wrote Los Angeles columnist Jim Murray. “He just put it on page one.”

Palmer was graceful in the way he looked people in the eye and acknowledged them, but his swing was more of a thrash—brisk and powerful—that climaxed in a helicopter finish that could barely contain the energy that made him such a fierce competitor.

He didn’t invent the word charge, as when a golfer started roaring up the leaderboard, but he was forever aligned with it through legendary feats such as the 1960 U.S.  Open. He started the final round seven strokes back. He told writers Bob Drum and Dan Jenkins he would drive the first green, a 346-yard par 4, and make a birdie and shoot 65. He birdied six of his first seven holes, shot 65 and won his only U.S. Open, one of his seven major championships and among his 62 PGA Tour events.

If you’re looking for someone to emulate to clear out your swing cobwebs, you’d be well advised to follow the exhortations of his father Pap, a greenkeeper and head professional, who told his son to “hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it hard again.”

Palmer was also a great model for golfers and athletes of all kinds: he treated everyone with dignity, thanked them enthusiastically, looked you in the eye, and when possible he would give you a firm and intentional handshake. Despite his millions and celebrity status, he acknowledged everyone he came in contact with as an important person.

As we mourn his passing, we can also give great thanks to Arnold Palmer for growing the game so millions can enjoy it, and reminding us to always take the high road and treat everyone we meet with dignity. That’s a helluva a legacy.



About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!