The beautifully engraved belt clip felt heavy. I wasn’t use to wearing credentials to play in a golf tournament. Of course this tournament at TPC Piper Glen in Charlotte, North Carolina was special. It was 1999 and I was playing in the 20th Anniversary of the Home Depot Invitational. I was a Pro-Am Contestant in my very first professional event. I was so scared that I was certain my legs would fail me at any moment.
At the first evening’s “Pairing-Party,” hundreds of amateur golfers enjoyed a tantalizing spread of southern foods with an “open bar” to assure that enough adult beverages were consumed to calm even my nerves. After dinner, a frenzy of activity began as each 4-person team waited for their names to be called and one of the Professionals’ names were drawn from a purple suede bag. That Pro would become the 5th member of the “team” for the next day.
Without exception, each player hoped their Pro would be “The King,” one of the greatest golfers of all time; Arnold Palmer. This would be the last regular season Champions Tour event Palmer would play in, although he entered every Champions Tour Major Championship until 2005. Playing one round with “The King” would be the moment of a lifetime for the eager amateurs.
As Teams were called, names were drawn and tee times assigned, the room was filled with a certain amount of disappointment by the teams filled out by some other Pro. On the other hand, the anticipation of the remaining teams grew as the odds of playing with Palmer continued to increase each time his name did not come out of the bag. With five teams and five Pros remaining, my team was still in the running. “The next draw for the team of Berry, Collins, Donovan and Webber,” the announcer called. The pause that followed seemed like it was hours long. ” With one Major Championship and 44 professional victories… Don January.” A 25% chance of playing golf with one of the legends of the game and we get Don January, who was already 70 years old and fully retired. Palmer’s name came up for the very next team.
For the next two days of the Pro-Am and the first three days of the actual golf tournament, I didn’t see Palmer again. He was never in contention for the victory, stuck in the middle of the scores. On the final day, I was near the Clubhouse when I saw that it was Palmer’s grouping that was teeing off on the 18th hole. A plan formed in my mind. I rushed to the merchandise tents where Habitat For Humanity was selling replica’s of “Arnie’s Tractor” to raise money for the charity. I had seen the mob waiting for Palmer to complete the final hole and head to the locker room. An army of fans were being held tightly at bay by a large number of State Patrol Officers and no one was getting close to “The King.” But, AH HA, I had my Participant Credentials which gave me access to the short walkway leading into the locker room. I positioned myself about halfway down the walkway.
As Palmer approached, two huge officers held their hands up and delivered a message: “Please do NOT approach Mr. Palmer with anything you wish to have autographed. Hold the object out in front of you and Mr. Palmer will approach you if he is going to sign it.” These two guys looked seriously mean. Quickly, I opened the box containing the tractor and extended “Arnie’s Tractor” out at full arm’s length. Now, it would be out-of-my-control. I could only hope that he’d stop at me. I watched him sign a program for a younger woman on crutches, a golf ball for a short, stout man and he began to approach a young boy, sitting on his dad’s shoulders and holding a golf cap. The boy was almost directly across fro me. I figured my plan was a bust.
Fortunately, Arnold Palmer notices everything. Surprisingly, he turned directly around, took the tractor from my hands held it up and said; “That’s a beauty. Thank you for supporting my charity.” He signed the top and walked on into the locker room, without signing another object. I just stood there for a very long time, looking at the perfect signature on the orange to of the tractor. But I still hadn’t really “met” Arnold Palmer
Now, flash-forward to 2008. I am writing an article on the Cottages at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge near Orlando, Florida. These are gorgeous vacation rentals, right on the grounds of Bay Hill. Your reservation allows you full access and privileges of regular membership at the club. Yes, it is pricey but for any avid golfer, a few days in this golf paradise is priceless. As I was saying goodbye to the Director of Marketing, who was kind enough to give me a guided tour, I said; ” I know Mr. Palmer won’t recall me, so would you please tell him “Thank You” for me? She replied; “Why don’t you tell him yourself? Just go through the glass doors behind you and take the staircase outside up to his office.” At this moment, I’m thinking that this is probably a joke they play on everyone who asks for or about Mr. Palmer but I’ll play along. Up I go on an old, nondescript staircase. I enter the office, do exactly as I had been instructed and ask for “Susan,” Mr. Palmer’s Personal Assistant. She tells me that he is on the phone but should be done in a moment and I should have a seat on the sofa near “Mulligan.” Mulligan is Palmer’s big, friendly Golden Lab. We become fast friends in the few moments I waited.
The King is now finished with his call. He enters the room, clapping his hands loudly and bellowing out; “Well, what are we going to do today?” For me, it was like going to Disneyland for the very first time. I couldn’t get the stupid grin off my face. We talked about dogs. We talked about golf, especially how the biggest changes today are in the golf balls and clubs. We talked about age. We talked about a life of “service to others.” We talked for quite awhile yet it seemed like only a moment. He shook my hand with his boundless enthusiasm and the grip of a Pennsylvania Farmer (ouch!) Finally, we said our goodbyes. This would be a great story if it ended right there, but it didn’t.
Just under a year later, I was covering the 50th Anniversary of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Mr. Palmer was the Honorary Marshal for the tournament. The first of many such honors he would receive in 2009, the year in which he would turn 80. On the day before the start of the event, “The King” held a press conference, to which I was invited. There were over 100 sportswriters and broadcasters in the room. At the end of the hour-long conference, Palmer made his way down the center aisle, graciously shaking hands and answering some questions. I sat on the aisle about 3/4 of the way to the door. As he arrived at where I was seated, he moved towards me, reached down and grabbed my hand warmly (but still too damn hard, ouch again) and said; “Michael, great to see you here. How’s everything in Las Vegas?”
I learned a lot from these three encounters with “The King.” He takes the time to make everyone feel like a friend. He has a spectacular memory. When you are in his presence, he makes you feel like you are the most important person in his day. If “The King” can do that, with all the responsibilities that go along with just being Arnold Palmer, we should all be able to do that. His true gift is that he makes everyone feel like a King!