Twenty-five hundred years ago, Socrates said the greatest way to live your life is to be in reality what you appear to be. That was Arnold Palmer. The charismatic person you saw on television - the impish smile, the twinkle in his eye, how he treated people - wasn’t a persona. That was the real Arnold.
Arnold and I weren’t BFF (best friends forever), but over almost a quarter century we had many different interactions: helping him as a driving range volunteer at a pro golf tournament; interviewing him more than once while broadcasting my radio program from his Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando; as a member of the National Advisory Council of his beloved hospital; and he provided the foreword for my second book. Whenever I was around him I thought of Socrates, because Arnold Palmer truly was in reality what he appeared to be.
Someone else warned that you never want to meet your heroes, lest you come away disappointed. If you were a member of Arnie’s Army, once you had the privilege to meet him, any subsequent reappraising was to increase your emotional investment in him. People idolized Arnold because his golf game and personality were both blue collar: straight up and unpretentious.
When asked to briefly compare himself to Arnold, longtime friend and frequent nemesis on the tour, Jack Nicklaus, said, “I love golf. Arnold loves people.” Clearly, no one loved golf more than Arnold Palmer. But seeing how he interacted with others, all the way down to a member of the gallery he was in front of for seconds, anyone could see how much Arnold loved people. Jack is known to never autograph a golf ball. Arnold signed whatever you handed him, and he always told young pros, “Sign your name so people can read it,” as he always did.
The only thing about Arnold that saddened me was something many people didn’t know: For probably the last third of his life, he had significant hearing loss, even with hearing aids. When you saw Arnold deliver his patented thumbs up response with those massive hands, that was his way of coping with the fact that he heard someone addressing him, but didn’t hear what was said. It was troubling to me that someone might think he was being arrogant or dismissive by not answering, when nothing could be further from the truth. For the most notoriously approachable living legend on the planet, who truly couldn’t get enough of people, his hearing loss was the cruelest disability.
Everyone wanted a piece of Arnold and he never disappointed. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were in attendance at a dinner celebration prior to the Insperity Invitational that Arnold had promised to attend. Even though he was obviously struggling with back pain, he fulfilled his promise. As people came by his table during the evening, old friends and not-yet-friends, with great difficulty Arnold stood up to shake the hand of every one. Years before, in one of our interviews, Arnold quoted his father, Deacon, about that: “Son, whatever you do in your life, turn the table over and treat others like you want to be treated when you’re on the other side.” Treating people like they mattered ran very deep in Arnold Palmer, sometimes even at his own physical expense, whether you were a big deal or a bus boy.
The Orlando hospitals that bore his and his first wife, Winnie’s names, were extremely important to him. Once while Arnold joined several of us for a tour of the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, a doctor was describing the new and expensive, life-saving device of which they were so proud. Literally in the middle of that demonstration, I heard Arnold say, “Isn’t it great that it doesn’t smell like a hospital in here?” That detail was important to him, because he believed the antiseptic smell of medical facilities was frightening to children who were already under stress. By the way, one of Arnold’s edicts for the hospital was that no one would ever be turned away because they can’t afford the care. Arnold wasn’t just a golf legend, he was a human legend.
The story is legend of successful golf pros who failed trying to replicate their on-course success in business. That wasn’t Arnold’s story. He made a good living playing golf, but he became rich in the marketplace. In one interview I asked him for a success tip for business owners and he said, “Be trustworthy, be frank and straight-up.” I’m calling that Palmer’s Business Razor.
As “The man who saved golf,” and “The man who reinvented professional golf,” every touring pro in the modern era should thank Arnold Palmer, because they stand on his shoulders. And everyone who values sportsmanship, good manners, kindness, graciousness, humility, and class should thank Arnold Palmer. More than anyone else, Arnold not only demonstrated those values whether he won or lost, but you were inspired by him to demonstrate them yourself, if for no other reason than you wouldn’t dare risk disappointing him.
Clearly, Arnold Palmer lived a charmed life, but he also charmed our lives. For seven decades, wherever Arnold traveled around the globe, the world wanted a piece of him. I never met anyone who had so much to give, and who wanted so much to give it. The truly great human beings have one thing in common: They stand for something greater than themselves. During one of our interviews Arnold told me, “The reason I started traveling internationally was to promote golf as an agent to help make nations to be more friendly.”
The King is dead. Long live the King’s legacy.