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Tales of 'The King'


As many of you know, September 10th is Arnold Palmer's 80th birthday. Of all the great figures involved in golf over the past 500-plus years, perhaps none has captured the world's collective imagination like Palmer, who in the 1950s and '60s attracted TV viewers and popularized the game for millions. His work off the course is just as impressive.

Palmer was no robot; he didn't have a Hoganesque swing honed by hours sweating on the practice range. His Popeye-sized forearms under rolled-up shirtsleeves, wispy hair blowing in the wind, powerfully mad slashes at the ball, and swashbuckling style on the course made him the most dashing, go-for-broke star in any sport.

Adding to that flair, Palmer flew his own plane to golf tournaments. After buying the first Cessna Citation X he went out and set a speed record with it.

With such a plenitude of panache, Arnie - how many athletes earn widespread recognition by just mentioning their first name? - had considerable substance. After winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur and turning pro, he gobbled up seven major championships. From 1960-63 he notched a remarkable 29 victories on the PGA Tour. In 1960, he received the prestigious Hickock Belt - as the top professional athlete of the year - and Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year."

In 1967 Palmer became the first golfer to reach $1 million in career earnings, a magical number in sports at the time. He's still fifth all-time on the PGA Tour with 62 wins. He even had a drink - lemonade and iced tea - named after him in the late '60s.

After turning 50, Palmer joined the nascent Senior (now Champions) Tour, turning that slumbering circuit into a legitimate, highly visible enterprise. He won 10 times there, including five majors.

Arnold Palmer & Ed Seay (courtesy of Aidan Bradley)

In 1972, the Latrobe, Pa., native founded the Arnold Palmer Design Company, a firm - with great assistance by Ed Seay - responsible for creating 300 courses around the world. Along with Joe Gibbs, Palmer founded Golf Channel in 1995. The network - the first-ever to cover a single sport - now broadcasts 24/7 a wide range of golf programming from around the globe.

Palmer's individual awards are unparalleled in athletics, his name and familiar visage gracing Hall of Fame walls, dozens of trophies and plaques on golf courses near and far. Yet, perhaps most emblematic of his spirit and down-to-earth humanity, is his founding of the Arnold Palmer Pavilion at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando. Originally known as the "Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women," the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children has grown into a world-class medical facility. In 2006 Palmer opened the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, named after his late wife Winnie, creating separate pediatric and obstetrics hospitals.

Arnold Palmer has touched thousands - probably more like millions - of lives both on and off the course during his eight decades on this planet. And he still does. Next year he and fellow golf great - and legendary nemesis - Jack Nicklaus, will create a special moment in the game's history when they become the first-ever honorary co-starters of the Masters Tournament.

We've compiled a few stories from people who've met and been touched by this unique American icon. Here they are:

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"In late spring of 2000, I was invited to the grand opening of a Palmer-designed daily-fee course outside of Hilton Head, called Crescent Pointe. I was flabbergasted at how well he struck the ball during the clinic he conducted prior to the inaugural round. He was 70 years old at the time, but his tee shots were javelin-straight, bounding out to the 250-yard marker and often well beyond. My first thought watching him was that I was surprised he wasn't more of a factor on the Senior (now Champions) Tour.

"Once he took to the course itself, he was still impressive, but wasn't quite as automatic. He hit it beautifully, but I suppose the constrictions of the playing field got to him in the same way they get to all of us. Anyway, at cocktail hour afterwards he made a remark to the media regarding the upcoming U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He said something to the effect of, 'Watch Tiger crush the field. It's his time.'

"So there you have it - King, Champion, Icon, Diplomat, Pitchman, Pilot . . . and Soothsayer Extraordinaire!" golf writer Joel Zuckerman

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"Many years ago I had the good fortune to photograph Mr. Palmer and the late Ed Seay (Mr. Palmer's chief designer) for the cover of Golfdom Magazine. I photographed several portraits of Mr. Palmer while he was being interviewed. He then suggested I set up somewhere adjacent to the first tee box for the cover shot as he was going to play 18 with some friends.

"When he returned from the range he found me by the first tee box, set up and ready to shoot. As he approached, with a wink in his eye, he said, 'I judge my photographers by how quickly they get the job done.' Eight frames later we were finished and, as soon as I said, 'That's it Mr. Palmer, you're done. Thank you.' He turned around and walked away.

"Just as he was nearing the tee box, he turned, pointed a finger at me and said, 'Bradley we will work again.' We never did, but it was a very special moment for me. He is a wonderful man with an easy infectious charm like no other. Long live the King!" golf photographer Aidan Bradley

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"I'd say Arnold Palmer and Shell's Wonderful World of Golf were the reasons I first got interested in golf. Watching Arnold and Gary Player team up against two others on these great golf courses everywhere - wow! His charisma, his undaunted fearlessness, and his friendliness with the crowds . . . Plus it didn't hurt that he was the very best.

"Before we met, I did two or three interviews with him over the phone about golf course design. He was very interesting and enlightening. But when I met Arnold in person and had the opportunity to speak with him privately one-on-one for several minutes was a time I'll always treasure. Here was a man amidst a flurry of activity and concerns, about to give a speech before 2,500 people, and yet he made it seem like we were old friends and he wanted to catch up on what was happening with me.

"From what others have told me, that is exactly how he is with everyone. What a man. No wonder he is an icon. He embodies the word and he embodies all that is best about golf." golf writer Mark Leslie

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"When I was the media director for the Fred Couples Invitational in the 1990s we were able to get Mr. Palmer to attend the two-day, Monday-Tuesday event in Seattle. The final round was very hot - over 90 degrees, and mostly because of him we had record crowds (over 15,000 each day) and media requests from around the world.

"After Mr. Palmer walked up and down the very hilly and stifling Inglewood Golf Club and came off the course, I approached him about meeting with the media. He said, 'I'll be right there, but first I want a few cold beers and two Dove Bars.'

"I immediately went out and retrieved the items. Within five minutes he downed two beers and the ice cream and said, 'Let's go.' We went out to the media room and he gracefully answered questions for over an hour. At the end of that session, a particularly aggressive reporter from a Japanese radio network came up to him and almost demanded a separate interview. I knew Mr. Palmer was hot, tired and needed to get to the airport, so I tried to intercede. But he overheard the conversation, waved me off and said, 'It's ok.'

"The lady reporter then led him into a small courtyard where Mr. Palmer sat and kindly answered every question under a blazing sun for another 45 minutes. I was amazed at his kindness and patience for going the extra mile - for an exhibition tournament! What a class act!" golf writer Jeff Shelley

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"First time I saw Arnie play was at the '66 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. I was as heartbroken by his loss to Bill Casper as I was when Ben Hogan lost to Jack Fleck, also at Olympic, 11 years before.

"It was fairly early in the day, the final day - September 10, 1995 - of the senior tournament [GTE Classic] at Inglewood Golf Club north of Seattle. Arnie wasn't in contention but you still wanted to see him play. The word got around that he was having a heck of a round. As we stood on the 18th tee, it was apparent to everyone that Arnie, with a birdie on the par-5 hole, would shoot 66, on his 66th birthday, shooting his age for the first time in his career.

"I don't remember exactly how he did it. I think he chipped close to the hole, made the putt and headed for the clubhouse. What I do remember was how insanely happy he was. How a personal triumph - shooting his age on his birthday - was more important than winning the tournament. Or flying his jet. He was giddy. We sat among the paneled lockers and listened to him review the round. Finally, I said, 'You're acting like you just won the British Open. Is it really that big a deal?' He looked at me like I was crazy. 'Of course it was that big a deal,' he said. And you knew it was.

"The guy loves golf. Like we all love golf. Except he was good at it, and he had the personality and the persuasion to affect the game like perhaps no one ever has. He signed an autograph for my son, and the sons and daughters of hundreds of others that day. It was not a time in his career that he was promoting himself. It was just part of him loving people and loving life. The guy has it." golf writer Blaine Newnham

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"I have been lucky enough to watch Arnold Palmer play in person a number of times. The first was back in 1982 during the Bob Hope Classic in Palm Springs. I don't remember what hole or course, but I do remember the shot. Palmer had over 250 yards for his second shot into a par-5. I watched as he pulled out his driver, gave his usual little hitch and hit a shot I remember to this day. The first 100 yards the ball got no higher than 10 feet in the air, then after 100 yards it was like the golf ball turned on its afterburners and screamed high in the air like a Blue Angel. The last 50 yards or so it drew slightly as descended back to Earth, landing softly 10 feet from the flag. Remember now, this was in the day of persimmon woods and balata balls. I would challenge any modern-day player to go out and try that shot with equipment, circa 1980.

"The next time I saw Arnie play was at Inglewood just outside Seattle. I had just started Cybergolf and it must have been in the summer of 1996 as I remember him autographing my brand-new Cybergolf hat (which hangs in my office behind me as I write this). I believe it was a special media event as he played just nine holes early in the morning. I don't remember how he played, but what was so cool was there were no gallery ropes. I remember getting to walk right next to Arnie for most of the nine. It was magical how he interacted with the small gallery, taking time to talk with everyone while looking them right in the eye. I also remember him winking at all the women in the crowd and giving them that famous smile of his. I asked him to sign my hat and mentioned that I had just started this business. He shook my hand and wished me luck in my new venture. It was that day that Arnold Palmer replaced Jack Nicklaus as my golf hero.

"Jump ahead almost 10 years to September of 2005. Palmer was in Washington for a media event for the opening of the Prospector course that he designed at Suncadia Resort in Roslyn, east of Seattle. I took my dad, who had been struggling with Alzheimer's, as he liked Palmer and always was up for a road trip, even if he wasn't sure where we were going. It was a beautiful autumn day in the Cascades as Arnie teed off the back nine from the championship tees. I remember it was about a week before Arnie's 76th birthday and I remember how he played that day. I was amazed - once again - how well he drove the ball. He still had the same exciting shot trajectory the first time I saw him play almost a quarter-century before. His tee shots started off low and then rose to the heavens, 260 yards down the fairway. Palmer hit every fairway that day; I am sure if he would have played 18 he would have shot his age, or better.

"Palmer still had his incredible charisma, talking to the crowd, making jokes and, of course, winking at all the gals in the gallery. My dad had his own charisma that day. It was a long walk that morning and, somehow, he wound up making friends with the beverage cart girl and she ended up driving him around to watch Arnie play the last four holes. Yes, my dad still had game at 74!

"Happy 80th Arnie! Thanks for all the great memories and all that you have done for the game of golf." Cybergolf CEO Dan Murnan

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"More than two decades ago, Semiahmoo invited me to an opening ceremony for its new resort golf course hard by the Canadian border. I was fairly new to the game as a Seattle Post-Intellingencer sportswriter, new to playing and really caring about golf, but I rightfully knew who Arnold Palmer was.

"For several hours, a handful of new members, assorted others, a Vancouver sportswriter and me had this golf legend all to ourselves. Palmer and his team of designers had carved out this layout. We followed Arnie intently as he hit shots and did a running commentary. We were mesmerized by this dashing man now in his late 50s.

"Having spent the weekend at the resort hotel, Mr. Palmer had every reason to be less than enthusiastic about this outing. After all, the U.S. Open was playing on without him for the first time in his pro career, as he had lost his exempt status. Yet he was gracious to the men in his gallery and flirtatious to the women as he charged down 18 holes. After offering a short speech, answering some reporters' questions and signing autographs, Palmer boarded a helicopter sitting near Semiahmoo's 10th tee and lifted off for the short trip to the Bellingham airport, where his private jet awaited him." sportswriter Dan Raley

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"I may never have learned to play golf if it weren't for Arnie. Although women's golf had been around for years, Palmer made the game a real spectator sport and with that popularity the game grew so big that it furthered the establishment of the LPGA Tour and female golf celebrities. Women of average athletic ability - like me - were inspired to play. 'Arnie's Army' maybe grew the game for men. But it also recruited women. On behalf of all women golfers, 'Thank you, Arnie and many more Happy Birthdays!' "consultant and author Nancy Berkley

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"When I first became a journalist, I didn't really focus a lot on golf and, having been a football player until injuries drove me from the game in college, I never played golf much. But in 1986 I decided on a whim to take up the game.

"In 1992 when I was a sports editor for a small local paper in Austin, I went out to cover the Legends of Golf Tournament, which that year was played on the Fazio Course at Barton Creek Country Club. I didn't do much writing on the event as we were a weekly paper, but I got to follow around as many of the golfers as I wanted to.

"That year a bunch of celebrities were playing in the pro-am, so I followed the group that had my idol, Joe Namath, the former Jets quarterback. Also in the group was Arnold Palmer, who I immediately recognized but didn't know a lot about.

"After the round that day, Palmer stood for what must have been a half-hour signing autographs and greeting the many members of 'Arnie's Army.' He looked up and saw me, and asked who I was because I was inside the ropes. I told him and he looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Habel, you've got to get behind this golf tournament. I know you write for a small paper, but these folks that organize this event need as much help as they can get because if they don't Austin is going to lose this tournament.'

"I told him, 'Yes sir, I will do all I can.' It wasn't long after that (actually 1995) that the Legends moved to PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., leaving a huge hole in everyone's heart who loved having the tournament in Austin." golf writer Steve Habel

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"A few years ago I heard that Arnold Palmer had a dog, and I wanted to talk to him about it. This was a side to Palmer that had not been extensively written about. As a sports columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before it closed last March, I typically ask athletes if they have a dog.

"I'm not sure why I've always done that, I guess it's because I'm a dog nut myself and figure if someone has a dog, there must be redeeming qualities about him. And athletes, I've found, get sick of questions about their sport. But when someone asks them if they have a dog, well, their attitude changes. They brighten up and want to tell you why their dog is the best one in the world, even though they're wrong because mine is.

"I also pursued this line of questioning because it showed a different side of the athlete, one that most of us can relate to. So I contacted Palmer's people and lo and behold, they arranged a phone interview with him.

"I spoke to Palmer for 15 minutes, and every question was about his current dog, Mulligan, a yellow lab, or other dogs in his life. Mulligan was at his feet during the interview, and soon they would be driving around Bay Hill again, Arnie and Mulligan in a golf cart.

"Palmer could not have been nicer or more gracious with his time." sportswriter Jim Moore

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