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September 10, 2009 4:23 PM

Arnie's 80! Long Live the King...


As Tiger Woods becomes the player all golfers will measure themselves against, Arnold Palmer remains the man who brought the game, and Tiger, to the people.

The King is 80 today.

The story about the son of the demanding greenskeeper out of Latrobe, Pa., has been told countless times. Arnie wasn't born poor, but his father also made sure his boy understood that working your hands raw cutting the grass down on a fairway, and digging a ball out of that emerald turf with a 9-iron were two very different things.

Young Arnold grew to love the game, but he never, ever took it for granted.

When Arnie hitched up his pants and burst on the scene in the mid-'50s, he'd change what everybody thought of golf forever.

Palmer's rugged good looks and colorful, go-for-broke approach to the game played beautifully in black and white. And make no mistake about it, Palmer's ascent to his throne coincided with the rise of sports on TV. They were made for each other.

Palmer's grit and swagger talked to even the most casual golf fan.

He even seemed to battle an awkward, powerful swing you'd never teach to anybody. But it was all his own.
Each time he shoved the club back and returned it to the ball with a resounding thump, he seemed to tell us that anything worth having could be overcome with grit and determination.

Sometimes life could be a tough foe, but it only beat you if you quit swinging.

The King recruits an army

By his own admission, Palmer never won as many majors as he should have. In fact, the 1964 Masters where he won his fourth green jacket, would be his seventh and final major. He was only 34.

He contended for plenty more, finishing in the Top-5 a whopping 26 times in the majors, but too often self-inflicted damage was the cause of his heart-wrenching near-misses.
But win or lose, he kept swinging hard and going after it, and we liked him all the more for that, too.

In 1973, Palmer won his 62nd and final PGA tournament. Fittingly, he held off Jack Nicklaus by two shots to get it done.

Even if his winning days were over on tour, The King had recruited an army of lifer fans.

And the army continued to swell -- a fact that wasn't lost on me back when I was actually paid to cover the game, and had an encounter with the man that sticks to me like glue so many years later.

By now Palmer had won his final Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) event. Still, a full division of his army was in tow when he reached the practice tee of the tour stop in Naples, Fla.
It was only Wednesday, a practice day.

I marveled as Palmer gracefully dealt with the mob that besieged him the minute he arrived at the course.

Arnie signed autograph after autograph, flashed his trademark wink, and always seemed to have something special to say to the tots in the crowd.

When he was finally able to shake free, and bang a ball down the middle of the first fairway to begin his round, I had my chance for a brief assault.

I caught up with Palmer, swallowed hard, and asked if he ever tired of the constant attention from his fans. I wondered if, however briefly, he just wanted some time alone when he showed up at a tournament.

That's when Palmer came to a halt and looked at me hard. That's when everything went quiet in my world for what seemed like an hour.

"Do I ever get tired of it?!" he finally shot back incredulously.

"Er, yes sir," I somehow mumbled.

"Son, if it wasn't for (the fans), neither of us would be standing here right now."

With that, he hitched up his pants, and marched off to take another swing.
I walked off with a great quote, and some royal perspective.

Long live the King.

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