Let the record show that on Sunday Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy flashed the brilliance that took him to the top of the World Golf rankings as a youngster. He shot 64 at East Lake and beat Ryan Moore in four extra holes to win both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. Also, let the record show that Moore was announced later in the same day as the last player on the American Ryder Cup team. And let the record show that those news items were inconsequential because that same evening the world lost Arnold Palmer.
People more important and eloquent than I am will memorialize him and explain the significance of his passing. So allow me two personal Palmer encounters that I alone can report.
In 1970 I was serving in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Ord in California when I was given the chance to be a marshal at the Crosby Tournament. My group was assigned to Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin at Spyglass Hill for one of the opening rounds. Palmer was 41, and Jack Nicklaus was the game’s great player.
We had nice galleries early on the seaside front nine at Spyglass, but Palmer could get nothing going in the round. By the time we reached the turn, our marshal responsibility of moving the players through the galleries was irrelevant because there was no “army” by that time.
After we started through the pine-forested nine, Palmer made birdie at the 11th and sparked scattered shouts and applause. He then birdied the next to a somewhat larger reaction. Then he proceeded to birdie the next three holes, and as word spread, the gallery ropes began to fill. It was like in the movie The Birds, every few minutes there seemed to be more and more spectators following the ‘charge.’
At 16, he found the fairway, but with the crowds roaring, he sailed his approach past the pin and over the green. The groan from the throng was just as loud. But the ball, after landing over the green, spun back to birdie distance, and Palmer converted for six in a row. Creating a corridor for Arnold to get to the next tee was like escorting the Messiah, as people just reached out trying to touch him as he walked by.
He needed a birdie for a 29 on the back but bogeyed the 17th and wasn’t a factor in the tournament outcome. But I had sampled his career in those nine holes and will never forget it.
In 1983, I attended the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale as a spectator. On Saturday, Palmer, age 53, had shot 68 to climb into red numbers and end up in one of the late groups out.
I went to the range to watch him warm up, and even though he had no chance to win, he was swarmed with photographers trying to capture the moment. Palmer accommodated the distraction, and when he finished he started to walk to the golf cart that was to shuttle him to the practice green and the first tee.
There was a white-haired lady assigned to drive that cart, and as Palmer approached, she held up her small camera to get a picture. Palmer looked at her and waived his hands signaling “No.” You could see her shoulders sag. I thought Palmer was ‘big-timing’ her after tolerating all the earlier chaos with the sports photographers.
As quickly as I thought that, Palmer waved to the woman to come over to him. When she got next to him, he took the camera from her hands, handed it to one of the pros, put his arm around her shoulder and gestured to the photographer to now take the picture.
There are no leaderboards to post these kinds of wins by Palmer over his 62 years as a golf professional. But I can assure you there are thousands of those same stories and memories out there that qualify The King is the greatest person in the history of golf. No one will ever top him on that leaderboard.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.