CLEVELAND, Ohio -- His golf ball rested in a barranca alongside a fairway at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, and as Arnold Palmer stood over it, he glanced up and saw the renowned sports columnist Jim Murray peering down at him from the gully's edge.
"You're always talking about Ben Hogan," said Palmer. "What would Hogan hit from here?"
"Hogan," said Murray "wouldn't be there."
He changed the game
Palmer, who died Sunday at the age of 87, was the son of a greens keeper, who gave the exclusive country club game a populist appeal. He hit it where his fans hit it, but he somehow made up for it, either by staring down a must-have putt with his knock-kneed stance or recouping the lost shot with a binge of birdies before the round was over.
"Charge" was a word for cavalry buglers until Palmer made it a golf term.
A Cleveland connection
Players such as Benedictine's Tom Weiskopf had a swing that could have been in an instruction manual. Palmer slashed wickedly at the ball, by contrast, then cocked his head to one side to watch its mighty and occasionally misguided trajectory.
Palmer, in fact, had a Cleveland connection of his own. He really found his life's work while stationed in Cleveland as a member of the Coast Guard, winning two Ohio Amateurs and then setting off for the PGA Tour, there to put the wonder in the wonderful world of golf.
The most beloved
He was daring and brawny, the "Latrobe strong boy," as the nickname of his younger days went, and he played a dashing game at odds with the cold brilliance of Hogan or the power and cunning, always leavened by prudent conservatism, of Jack Nicklaus.
Palmer was known as the "King" for the riches he brought to the golf tour, but he was also simply known as Arnie. Fans thought of him as one of the boys.
He played impulsively, boldly, the way Phil Mickelson did, while swinging from the other side of the ball. Palmer won tournaments he should have lost and lost others he should have won.
Nicklaus was the greatest player ever, no question. Palmer was the most beloved ever, equally beyond question.
An Army on the march
In the roars of triumph from "Arnie's Army" hallooing through the pines at Augusta National at the start of the '60s to the groans of shock a year later when he double-bogeyed the final hole and lost his chance to be the first to repeat at the Masters, Palmer made golf a sport of sight and sound, sensation and sorrow and spectacle.
In the 1960 Masters, as golf was becoming a television presence nationwide, he had birdied the two closing holes to win by a stroke.
He followed that with the 1960 Open, coming from seven shots behind in the final round of the 36-hole marathon that was known as Open Saturday.
Then he revitalized the British Open, which had become,a tournament for people named Nigel and Chauncey, by playing it too, although he did not win.
In 1966, he squandered a seven-shot lead on the final nine holes of the U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco, foolishly going for the scoring record instead of the victory first and foremost, and then lost to Billy Casper in a Monday playoff.
All glory is fleeting
He won seven majors (four Masters, two British Opens, one U.S. Open), and they all took place from 1958-64. Nicklaus beat him in his own backyard at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh in a playoff for the 1962 Open, signaling a changing of the guard.
It would have been sad, Palmer always chasing his past, never quite able to re-strike the match, except for the palpable joy he took in simply playing golf and the connection he kept with the fans long after the candle had guttered.
One remembers a Masters in the twilight of Palmer's competitive career, when he really couldn't play to that standard anymore, and how genuinely the spectators, the marshals, even the writers wanted him to have a round that would serve as a bright valedictory, such as when Hogan shot 66 at the Masters at the age of 54 in 1967.
"How's ol' Arnie doing?" a sports writing friend asked a marshal holding the gallery ropes on the ninth hole one year at Augusta National.
"Ol' Arnie'd be doing a sight better if he could keep it between the strings," the marshal said.
But love remains
His farewell was rather from the hearts from those who saw him play, not from the leaderboard that recorded how he did. It came on Palmer's farewell appearance at the U.S. Open, again at Oakmont, in 1994.
Choking up in his remarks after he missed the cut again, Palmer sat mutely at the dais in the interview room while a roomful of reporters and columnists, the hell with objectivity for once, rose as one and spontaneously applauded. Palmer wasn't the only one shedding tears that afternoon.
I've never seen it happen before or since in the media. No one who was there regretted it either.
It was the man's due.
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