The late Byron Nelson, one of the golfs all-time greats, once said: “Arnold Palmer is the most popular professional golfer ever, and he deserves it”.
We here at Martin Oaks Cemetery & Crematory think that Nelson was correct on both counts. Much as Babe Ruth changed major league baseball, Palmer firmly established the popularity of the game of golf. You really had to live in the time to take his true measure.
When Palmer was in his prime, he brought to golf a view that the American public had never seen – he was “telegenic” in an era when that word probably did not even exist, nor were its implications understood.
Remember, in the 1950’s golf was televised on black and white screens to a public that was struggling to understand its appeal. Great golfing cathedrals like Augusta National or Pebble Beach, in monochrome, lacked the magical beauty that today’s broadcasts capture so well.
Against drab, flat images Arnold Palmer’s televised presence was a stark contrast: here was a young, fit athlete whose facial expressions and gun-slinger style of play charmed a growing national audience. Viewers could relate to Palmer — his roots were humble, his game self-taught.
And, there was that violent, swashbuckling swing! Gary Player, who had a friendly rivalry with Palmer said, “Arnold swings with little regard to style, his emphasis is on results.” Check it out in the YouTube link above.
Compared to many of the touring pros at the time, whose manner was staid and whose games were relatively conservative, Palmer was like a Star Wars Force. He never met a golfing maxim he didn’t ignore – stay in the fairways, be careful cutting the doglegs and use a cautious approach to the short game around the greens, all meant nothing to him. He was aggressive, gambling and stood out most when charging from behind. He gave the game LIFE!
I first saw Palmer on television when I was in grade school. Both of my parents payed golf, so the major championships and Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf were must see TV in our home. Palmer, quite simply, was such a domineering force that my entire family couldn’t help but immediately being dazzled.
His death last Sunday brought that time back to me quite abruptly. Fortunately, like baseball, golf has produced some outstanding writers who keep memorable times vividly alive: Herbert Warren Wind, Henry Longhurst and Dan Jenkins are my favorites. All of them have written extensively about Palmer. Sunday night I returned to these sources to recall his special appeal.
Dan Jenkins noted that under Palmer’s expressive demeanor, there was a ruthless competitiveness that vanquished all comers. Writing of Palmer’s victory at the 1960 Masters (a near miraculous charge to beat out Ken Venturi), Jenkins said: “when Arnold lifted the ball out of the cup (on No. 18), he may well have been tearing out Venturi’s heart at the same time”.
Warren Wind reported on Palmer’s amazing ability to relate to the media, a vital link to his popularity — he made it a habit to know the first names of all of the reporters who covered him: “I would guess that he knows the names of at least 400 American sports writers.”
Describing Palmer as a “very considerable man,” who had a spectacular ability to rise to a challenge, Longhurst suggested that his epitaph should be “here lies Arnold Palmer, he always went for the green.”
The best description of Palmer as a man probably came from his own hand in the forward he wrote for Byron Nelson’s wonderful How I Played the Game. In this insightful piece, Palmer emphasized the similarity of his father to Byron Nelson, particularly in the gentlemanly way they behaved towards others. It was a lesson Palmer never forgot.
I once saw him at a press conference, and I can vouch that his treatment of others was respectful, courteous and of the same championship caliber as his golf game.
When I think about Arnold Palmer, a quote of Gary Player’s comes to mind because it catches the man’s fundamental modesty. Player was talking about someone else, but the quote applies very well to Palmer — “He is a man who understands that self-praise is no recommendation.”
Arnold Palmer’s arrangements are being handled by Hartman-Graziano Funeral Home, Inc. in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. A memorial service is scheduled for October, 4th.