Arnold Palmer was seven strokes off the lead when he stepped to the first tee at Cherry Hills Country Club for the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open. He thought shooting a 65 might give him a chance to win, but a sportswriter friend from Pittsburgh told him it was lost cause. Not to Palmer. He drove the first green, made birdie, shot a 65, and won the tournament.
Palmer, who died this week at 87, had that type of steel-mill grit and he had that type of game. But he had something more than a competitive spirit and skills as a golfer.
For my money, few professional athletes have ever embodied what I call a 3H-Core more than Palmer. He was honest. He was humble. And he had heart. And when you combine those characteristics with talent and passion, you end up with someone who literally changes a sport and influences generations.
For many people, especially celebrities, the type of limelight he lived in is far too bright to handle. With the advent of televised tournaments, golf needed a star to popularize its game, and Palmer was the perfect fit. As journalist Ian O’Connor put it in a video for ESPN: “Arnold Palmer wasn’t the greatest golfer of all time. He was simply the most important.”
He was the first to win a million dollars, the first to make it big with endorsement deals, and the first golfer to have groupies – Arnie’s Army, they called him. But he had the rare ability to embrace his fame without getting consumed by it.
I believe it’s because he cultivated his core values – values like honesty, humility, and heart. He was known for his character. He never thought he was better than others. And he respected the people he met along the way, whether they were dignitaries or fans. As you read stories about him this week or watch videos, I think you’ll see those values represented the way he lived, on and off the course. It’s simply who he was, because it’s who he chose to be.
“Go out and watch Arnold Palmer for a day,” sportscaster Jim Nantz said in the ESPN video. “Walk around for 18 holes. Watch how many hands he shakes. How many people he makes eye contact with.”
As Good As it Gets
I briefly met Palmer in 2010 when he was in Denver for the 50th anniversary of that historic U.S. Open victory. Cherry Hills is my home club, so I was on hand for the festivities. We didn’t spend much time together, and he didn’t say anything particularly memorable to me. But it was a memorable moment, nonetheless. Like Palmer, I grew up in western Pennsylvania, so he was a personal hero. To me, like millions of others, Palmer was as good as it gets.
When I heard he had died, I didn’t reflect much on that one in-person encounter. Instead, I reflected on who he was – a man who influenced the world around him by living his values one day at a time, one swing at a time. Whatever success we have in our chosen professions, we can model the values that truly made Palmer special. That’s the legacy of the King.