It was announced earlier this week that 86-year-old Arnold Palmer would not be hitting the ceremonial first shot next month at The Masters.
It’s been a tradition that Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — the "Big 3" as they were known in the 1960s — all hit a drive down the fairway on No. 1 to kick off the tournament and serve as the "dew sweepers." But Palmer said because of a bad shoulder, he is unable to swing a club.
The news sent much sadness throughout the golfing world, though Palmer is expected to be on hand.
What’s remarkable is that Arnie’s last great year on the PGA Tour was in 1964, which is more than 50 years ago. Yet, he remains the most beloved figure in professional golf and all sports for that matter. In fact, Palmer and Muhammad Ali may be the two most cherished athletes in the last century. There’s a reason Arnie's called “The King” as he’s still that much revered. How many other golfing greats in their 80s still stir up so much emotion and sentimentality?
About the time Arnie was completing his halcyon days, I was taking up the game as an 8-year-old duffer in 1965. Every kid that touched a club back then wanted to be Arnie. Young and old golfers alike felt like they were part of “The Army,” as the effect he had on the game was contagious. It wasn’t until Tiger Woods came along some 20 years ago did a golfer capture the imagination of the public like Arnie. And Tiger certainly could have taken some pointers from him in sportsmanship and graciousness. You never saw “The King” dropping curse words into the mics or slam his club into the ground or against his bag. Remember the ad campaign where kids would say, "I want to be Tiger Woods?" It should have been "I want to be Arnold Palmer."
Arnie had a homemade game. He didn’t have the eloquent, flowing swing of a Payne Stewart or an Adam Scott. He would hitch up his pants and take a mighty slash, with his head immediately cocking to one side. Then he would pick up his cigarette and swashbuckle his way down the fairway, with his adoring fans watching his every step. They also groaned at every missed putt, as persistent flat-stick problems throughout his career probably cost him another 15 or 20 victories.
Arnie was the ultimate risk-taker as there was no shot he wouldn’t try. He was Phil Mickelson before Phil. In fact, Mickelson probably patterned his style after Palmer and he’d probably have more wins had he played more conservative and not spent so much time going for broke.
Palmer has been golf’s No. 1 ambassador. The way he played the game, with charisma and chutzpa, attracted millions of fans for his “Arnie's Army.” Everywhere Arnold played, that’s where most of the gallery went.
There’s been far better players than Palmer, including Tiger and Nicklaus, but they aren’t held in the same esteem as Arnie. Even when Palmer was playing the Senior Tour and could barely break 80, fans rooted on his every swing.
It’s no wonder Arnie has been the corporate world’s ultimate pitch man, as he has been a spokesman for countless companies. Of course there’s always a golf-based theme around his ads because it’s the game he loves so much. He’s one of those guys that everybody likes and no one will ever say a bad word about.
It’s going to seem strange when Palmer doesn’t hit the first drive this year at Augusta. But he’s still "The King' in my book and is the most important golfer in the history of the game.