Sunday’s funeral service for Arnold Palmer and the display of his trophies and awards brought back thoughts of the legendary golfer’s impact. Palmer provided inspiration for generations of players, spanning generations of men and women in all walks of life, from famous athletes to broke athletes.
He revolutionized golf as a player, hosting U.S. Open after U.S. Open and winning the club championship and all others necessary to determine which was the greatest American golfer of all time. As a supporter, there were no equal standards to keep him on top.
Fittingly, the roots of his immense popularity started in the playground. Palmer did not make a golf course, he just made his own rules. And that was the start of the evolution of an entirely new culture in golf.
Playing golf has become acceptable behavior in its own right, rather than a performance you hold so dear you want to win at all costs. The very way Palmer viewed the game shows how far we’ve come in that regard.
In the early 60s, Palmer, a classically trained Greek playwright, told a reporter that you had to prepare properly to play golf. He had this wisdom beyond the rules, but he knew how difficult the game was and how the perfection of play could mean so much to those who engage in it.
Even now, we practice and listen to instruction. It’s a huge part of the sport. But Palmer’s style back then set the very tone for the “money tournaments” – which emphasize winning in the short run – and reflected a better time for golf.
When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters, the idea that an actor-turned-golfer could dominate the sport was not as antiquated as it is today. Woods put winning on the side of etiquette, accountability, playing well for six days, and to use words he coined himself, “winning ugly.” It had a different meaning back then.
Some say his style is the antithesis of the relaxed and laid back attitude golfers have now. That just means they want to play better. Tiger vs. Phil, No. 19 lifetime wins. A pound for pound, but compared to all the American golfers of years past, it’s an incredibly small margin for error.
Nicklaus’ Championship Sunday of 1976 changed the way we view the sport for good. All he had to do was knock in a 15-footer to make him the first golfer to win the Masters at least three times. When he holed the putt, the crowd was treated to one of the most incredible shots in history.
He played the whole tournament virtually the same, making one par-saving putt, a putt that shook the grounds from every direction in sight. He was a cinch to win. He was the best player in the game at the time, and he proved it. We’re a small window in time into a larger historical event.
What else could a 17-year-old Nicklaus have done to separate himself from Ben Hogan, the last man to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year? Nicklaus never had the pressure of the hype of a Floyd, Faldo, or Woods, but he was simply brilliant. He didn’t win another major or even a World Golf Championship. For all his five major titles, he was beat up on the path to being one of the best players ever. Golf did not love him, and he never lived up to the hype.
Palmer, too, was underrated to a lot of people. But he was not just any golfer. He was the first celebrity that the masses were aware of, a part of society, for the most part, not just famous, and that made him one of the best. His golf game was as one-of-a-kind as anyone’s out there now.
It was a different time, and it was a very small window in time. While Palmer had a leadership role in amateur golf and nearly received endorsement money before he became a professional, nothing he did in his career was of his own making. He didn’t hire the staff he hired, nor did he dictate to them. His support for Jack Nicklaus and the Manassas Country Club made it easier for Nicklaus to build courses around the country.
The players of today are still trying to write their own history. Some of us are a lot luckier and a lot more educated than others. But there is no such thing as being in the right place at the right time. In this case, Palmer was the right man for the job.