September 28, 2016

Arnold Palmer, R.I.P.

Arnold Palmer was made for TV. By that I don't mean he was prepackaged, like a television movie or a band or the star of a reality show. What I mean is that Arnold Palmer, without a doubt, was made for TV.

The cameras loved him, standing on the tee with that determined look, tossing aside a butt and hitching up his pants and looking down the fairway, then lashing at the ball with a swing that every golfer could identify with. When he sank the last putt on 18 to win a tournament, with that familiar knock-kneed stance of his, he would fling his visor in the air in triumph, a gesture which Tiger Woods would suggest after winning his first Masters. Before televised tournaments became commonplace, he starred with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in Big Three Golf, bringing the sport out of the country clubs and to the masses, becoming the People's Champion. With his combination of charisma, talent and genuine likability, just at the moment television was coming of age, he was the right man at the right moment. Arnold Palmer was very good to television, and television was very good to him.

The cameras loved him equally when he was off the course, on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on the cover of Time, trading quips with Bob Hope or running through airports with O.J. Simpson or doing commercials on ESPN. In 2014 Forbes ranked him third on their list of the highest-paid athletes, even though he hadn't swung a club in anger for a decade. He made $42 million that year,* and I doubt it would have been that much if he didn't come across as such a warm personality on television. No matter where Palmer was when the cameras caught him, he appeared to be at home, probably because no matter how the cameras caught Arnold Palmer, they caught him being himself - a great competitor, a nice man.

*Palmer made $875 million in his lifetime; only $3.6 million came from prize money.

The stories are legion, and probably not worth repeating here, since they're so well-known. Suffice it to say Arnold Palmer may have been one of the most beloved athletes of all time, if not the most beloved. He never left until he'd signed every autograph, and the sportswriter Dan Jenkins once joked that Palmer would use a telescopic sight to make sure there wasn't someone out there still wanting an autograph. His friend and competitor Chi Chi Rodriguez said every golfer should be grateful for the impact Palmer had made on the sport. “When Arnie wins a tournament," Chi Chi said,  I make an extra $100,000.” He was responsible for the British Open becoming an international championship; after Palmer went over there and won, other Americans followed. Women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be like him, a drink was named after him. No matter where Palmer went on the course, his legions of fans - Arnie's Army - would follow. Even God seemed to be on his side - he lost a tournament at Pebble Beach one year because he had twice hit a greenside tree with approach shots; that night, a storm felled the tree. Hey, I report - you decide.

Golf has become such a staple of television nowadays that it's hard to imagine a weekend without a tournament on TV somewhere; there's even a channel dedicated to golf - which Arnold Palmer helped create, naturally. Without Arnold Palmer there wouldn't have been a Jack Nicklaus, a Johnny Miller, a Phil Mickelson, a Tiger Woods. Oh, they would still have played the game, and they would have played it well - but would anyone have been watching? Suffice it to say that no man has ever had an impact on the game, and the culture that surrounds it, than Arnold Palmer. And when he died on Sunday at the age of 87, it was a life well-lived.

Yes, there's no question that Arnold Palmer was a television star. Though there may be better players, longer hitters, bigger winners, there's only one Arnold Palmer, and we'll never see his likes again.

6 comments:

  1. One of my father's heroes. One of mine, too.

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    1. Much as I like Jack, I could never warm to him until after Arnie had run his course. I think for me the 1975 Masters was the turning point when it was OK to side with the Golden Bear. As I said, we'll never see anyone like Arnie again.

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  2. Arnold was golf's 'Larry Bird'; Hardworking, talented, and pleasant on or off the course. No scandals either (unlike, of course, the aforementioned Tiger or John ''19th hole'' Daly).
    That he only won $3.6 in prize money is no surprise, like Tennis and NASCAR most of the income is sponsors. Many golfers have had at one time or another 'Arnold Palmer' clubs, balls or other gear.

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  3. I have a vivid childhood memory of a commercial he did for L&M cigarettes. He's at a tournament, he walks onto the green, puffing away, and just before he putts, he throws the cigarette onto the ground! And it lands directly into the shot, fully lit in the immaculate grass, and it's supposed to be a GOOD thing! And all I could think of (being the child of devoted smokers) was, "How can an athlete be smoking - WHILE he's playing?" And, "You're throwing something BURNING into the GRASS?" And that's my Arnold Palmer memory.

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  4. Arnold Palmer and Frank Chirkinian, the father of televised golf, came up around the same time. You cannot have one without the other. There is a reason why for many years, the CBS style of golf was regarded as the platinum standard for golf. The microphones on the tees, cups, sectional reporters (15-18) and of course, the relation to par that made it understandable. No wonder we hear "minus such and such" today in golf. Palmer and Chirkinian were golf together, and modern golf is rapid-fire, seeing shots.

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  5. Much like the case with Tiger Woods during the decade between 1998 and 2008, when Arnold Palmer in his prime was in or within striking distance of the lead after three rounds of a televised golf tournament, the network carrying that tournament would see a ratings spike because Palmer was a contender.

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