Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
Fifty years ago, Arnold Palmer did not wear a hearing aid. He was into flying airplanes, however, which would exacerbate his hearing loss.
He often played with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and he would stop and sign autographs wherever he went.
Arnold was in his prime. Television had begun to establish its affection for golf and for the man who let it be known that he would like to win the Grand Slam — The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA championship — all in the same calendar year.
Nobody had ever done that except Bobby Jones, who was slowly dying from a crippling disease but still a prominent fixture at the Masters.
It didn’t take long, with the proliferation of television’s coverage of golf, for Arnold Palmer to become one of the most recognizable faces in America.
Interest in golf exploded as Arnold, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player, who dominated the sport, were known as “The Big Three.”
You could make the case that the big three influences in Palmer’s career were television, his agent, Mark McCormack, and his own charisma and personality — an effective confluence that made him the most popular and the most successful athlete in the world.
His timing was extraordinary.
Equally as important as television was McCormack, who skillfully managed Arnold’s off-course earnings into the multimillions.
Every major corporation seemed to want Arnold to endorse its product or service.
But what made the Latrobe, Pa. native so popular was his winsome personality.
He was a go-for-broke player who passionately espoused the notion that “if you find (the ball), you can hit it, and if you hit it, it might go in the hole.”
He was handsome and articulate and waxed insightfully at press conferences.
The media loved him because he not only had that charisma and magnetic personality, he also took up time with people — even the guy from the smallest radio station when he stuck out his microphone and began chattering away.
Wherever he went, Arnie smiled. He was never short with people.
He always functioned with class and was the epitome of a gentleman with good manners and good sense.
Those people who clamored eagerly for his autographs (some of them grown men) bought his golf clubs and his clothes.
While Arnold was not crass enough to scheme out that objective, it was, nonetheless, a byproduct of his style and personality.
While visiting with him in his office at Bay Hill last spring, one of the questions I wanted to ask had to do with his generous management of autographs. Although he said he couldn’t be sure, his secretary, who had retired in the last four or five years, estimated that he had signed his name over a million times. That number is obviously increasing, as his autograph remains one of the most sought-after signatures in sport.
It wasn’t too many years ago, on a Sunday morning, that Arnold took time to record his thoughts and feelings on Augusta, saying that if he had only won the four Masters titles (58-60-62-64) he would have considered his golf career a success.
He addressed several topics, but the one that brought out overt feeling and passion was when he talked about Amen Corner.
“I find that the corner is the most exciting series of golf holes that I’ve ever played. They may not be the most difficult holes in golf, but they certainly are the most exciting,’’ he said. “Under tournament conditions, when the pressure is on, the wind is blowing, and all the things that can happen are happening, those holes will give you the thrill that you really want or might be looking for in golf or in life.”
Arnold Palmer has always had time for people, and he has given of himself to the game. Fifty years ago, he was the most popular of champions. The fans loved him then and they still love him now.