Arnold Palmer. Photo: Ross Kinnaird

People are eulogizing Arnold Palmer. Should I do so, at this website? Well, I have included him in my music criticism before.

In 2009, I wrote about Montserrat Caballé, the great Spanish soprano, who had recently appeared in Avery Fisher Hall (as we then called the hall now known as David Geffen). She was seventy-five. And whatever the reason—age or not—she was very painful to hear.

After describing this event, I wrote,

You can debate till the cows come home when a singer should retire. The late Victoria de los Angeles came out of retirement when she was in her seventies, because she had financial problems—or so it was said. Why does Montsi continue? Because she needs the money, or because she needs, or loves, the public? Probably the latter, and there is no shame in that. As long as people want her, and she wants them, why should they not have each other?

I have frequently made an analogy to golf—to the Senior Tour. Arnold Palmer kept going and going, even as his scores got higher and higher. He simply loved being out there, and his fans—“Arnie’s Army”—loved seeing him. Jack Nicklaus did something quite different: As soon as his game wasn’t sharp, he stopped. There is no one right approach, although I myself might favor the Nicklaus way. Caballé is doing it the Palmer way. And I hope she is as happy as she seems to be, living the life she has chosen, or that was chosen for her, when she was born a soprano.

Googling around, I see that I linked Palmer to music on another occasion, too. Jack Nicklaus had attended an NBA game. Anyway, this is what I wrote:

At one of the championship games between the Heat and the Spurs, a fan walked by Nicklaus. He said to Nicklaus, “Hey, you’re Arnold Palmer!” “No,” said Nicklaus, “but close.” . . .

I’m going from memory, but here’s the story as I recall it: Leontyne Price (the great soprano) was in a department store in New York. Someone said, “You’re Joan Sutherland!” “No,” she answered, “I’m Beverly Sills.”

I used to write a fair amount about golf, and when you do that, you bring up Palmer—even when your subject is someone else. In 1997, I eulogized Ben Hogan:

He had been the greatest golfer in the world, the sport’s most mysterious hero. The first American star was Bobby Jones—scion of Atlanta society, Harvard educated, the epitome of the gentleman golfer. Then came Hogan, who could not have been more different: hardscrabble, maniacal, obsessive about everything he touched. Next there was Arnold Palmer, golf's first television idol, who melted the screen with his charisma and approachability. And after him came Jack Nicklaus, the finest player ever, as even Hogan partisans will admit.

Palmer’s nickname was “The King.” He was “The King of Golf.” Did golf fans call him “King” because, over in music, Elvis Presley was “The King”? You know, I’m not really sure. Have not thought of it until now.

I remember a line from Chi Chi Rodriguez: “Arnold is the King. Jack is the Prince. I am the Court Jester.”

For years, people have said that three men were responsible for the popularization of golf in America—a popularization that took place in mid-century. And I suspect that this assessment is right: Eisenhower, Bob Hope, and Palmer.

Palmer’s biography is widely known. He was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a steel town. His father was the head pro and greenskeeper at the local country club. Palmer père was nicknamed “Deacon.” Later, there was a line of golf irons, under the Arnold Palmer brand: “Deacons.”

Named after the star’s father, of course. Although . . . Arnold went to Wake Forest, whose athletes are the Demon Deacons. So maybe the irons were a combined tribute?

I saw Palmer a few times. I saw him play in two senior tournaments, I think. He was charismatic, genial, handsome, and, of course, talented. When a plane passed overhead, he looked up, to check it out. Palmer was a lifelong, or nearly lifelong, pilot. The Latrobe regional airport is named for him.

In 2008, I wrote a piece called “A Day of Golf: The USGA Museum reopens.” “USGA” stands for “United States Golf Association.” The museum is in Far Hills, New Jersey. And this day was Arnold Palmer Day, throughout the state. I mean, officially. After being closed for renovation, the museum reopened with a wing called “the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History.”

My Googling does not yield my piece. But I found it elsewhere. And would like to quote a bit:

Out on the grounds, a crowd surrounds someone, and cameras flash. Must be Palmer—and, lo, it is. At 78, he is still a rock star, mobbed wherever he goes. The fans want autographs, and Palmer duly complies—he looks grim as he goes about this business. The fans are none too decorous, either: They are pushy, grabby, heedless. Was the autograph culture always this bad?

And here is another question: In the span of his career, has Arnold signed more autographs than he has hit golf balls? The numbers must be dizzying.

For many years, Palmer presided over his PGA tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in Greater Orlando. He was an éminence grise for, how long? Thirty years or more.

He had a grandson, Sam Saunders, who became a touring pro. There are many, many father-son combinations in professional golf. A grandfather-grandson combo is sort of touching. Tommy Armour III is the grandson of the great Tommy Armour. About Tommy Armour Jr., I know nothing. Bet he plays golf, however, and that his handicap is not too high.

Above, I suggested that Arnold Palmer had been an éminence grise of the sport, and of America, for a very long time. Not long enough, come to think of it. Americans got a kick out of Arnie, and he got a kick out of them.

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