As a kid, I was a typical sports-hero worshipper.
The object of my adoration was Arnold Palmer.
That’s why it felt like a 3-iron to the gut late Sunday when it was announced that the man that made golf great passed away at the age of 87.
I started playing golf in 1965, about a year after Palmer had completed an unprecedented run that saw him dominate the game like few had before. I couldn’t wait to watch Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — The Big 3 — as it was captivating, riveting golf.
It wasn’t that Palmer won so much that I enjoyed, it was how he won. When you look up the word “swashbuckler” in the dictionary, you’ll find Arnie’s picture. No athlete probably has been described better. He would hitch his pants, take a rip, cock his head and then go for broke.
To put it in simplest words Arnie was just cool, a category I reserve for only a special few like my departed friend Johnny “Sunshine” Watkins.
He was one of those guys that nobody ever said a bad word about and I’m sure he never said a bad word about anybody. He was always gracious, especially in the face of some brutally tough defeats, and always gave credit to somebody else. He just had the “it” factor.
He didn’t have the most classic of swings. But he had style. He had those buttoned-down sweaters and that cigarette dangling out his mouth when he strode confidently up the fairways. He was the James Dean of golf. The course was his stage and he played to the crowd with his ever-present smile and grace.
It was that allure that gave birth to “Arnie’s Army,” the massive legion of followers who cheered loudly at his successes and groaned to the heavens at his failures. Most of those came on the greens where Arnie’s reaction to a short missed putt was priceless. Those old film clips of him are forever etched in golf lore.
Palmer off the course was even more exemplary. He was the most accessible player in the game, always making sure his autograph was legible, unlike the chicken scratch most athletes give. He was handsome and athletic, a combination that earned him countless endorsements, even late in life as he was still such a popular draw in his mid 80s.
He was a golf course designer and stayed close to the game long after his playing ability had left him. He would join Nicklaus and Player on the first tee at Augusta, lashing a drive and craning his head to the side like he did 50 years earlier. Even when Arnie chopped it off the tee, the spectators cheered wildly.
Nicklaus and Tiger Woods were unquestionably better golfers. They have made an amazing impact on the game. But they’ll be the first to say that Arnie was the player who brought golf into the mainstream of our consciousness and made the sport what it is today.
I wrote a column a while back where I listed Arnie as my most favorite athlete of all time and Muhammad Ali was right behind. Now both are gone in the same year.
Just as I said after Ali’s passing, the sports world has a giant hole that will never be filled.