America's father figure says good-bye
Watching Arnold Palmer walk the 18th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club one last time at the Masters golf tournament, it hit me like a Big Bertha driver why this man remains arguably the nation's most beloved athlete so far past his own athletic prime: he is the definitive American father figure.
Larger than life, but with a blue-collar ethic that has always made him a favorite of the man on the street, Palmer possesses the attributes every kid wishes for in a father: Charismatic, impossibly good looking (even at 74), and still ferociously competitive, yet with the rare gift of true kindness, he's remained humble and approachable even though he's attained great wealth and living-legend status. To his credit and my amazement, Arnie never adopted even a hint of the elitism sometimes associated with his sport.
His final walk across his favorite golf course, amid the familiar roar of his adoring seven-deep "army," was one of those transcendent sports moments that combine history and pathos. Broadcast live on the USA Network by the CBS broadcasting crew, which to its credit knew enough to say little, and shown later that evening on every sportscast in the country, Palmer's final Masters, which rightly eclipsed any news of the actual tourney contenders that day and even to some degree Phil Mickelson's eventual epic victory, must have generated a variety of emotions in viewers of all ages.
For me, it wasn't just about golf, but about the cruel yet poignant passage of time. And about fatherhood. I'm sure I wasn't alone in associating this bittersweet day with my own life and my own father. It was both compelling and painful to watch Palmer accept his fate, to bravely embrace Father Time, to take his characteristically classy final bow at the tournament he's loved so much and to which he's given so much the past 50 years.
I felt a surge of emotion as Arnie tapped in his final putt, not only because he represents a decency and civility that is fast approaching extinction in our popular culture, but because Palmer was my father's hero, and my father was mine. As Palmer slowly walked off the 18th green, I hoped the moment wouldn't end, just as you wish your father could live forever.
"It's not fun to know that it's over," Palmer said in an emotional interview with CBS just after his final round. "But it's been a great week, and I'm happy. The fans have been, well, goodness, they have been so supportive." After a pause, he added tearfully but with a resolved smile, "This is difficult for me. I'm a sentimental slob."
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Arnold Palmer was one of the first true stars of televised sports. With his perpetual tan, windswept charm, likability and remarkable shot-making prowess, he popularized golf the way no other athlete ever popularized a sport, before or since. Now known simply as The King, he won the Masters four times, the British Open twice, the U.S. Open once, and 92 championships in all. But his on-course record only begins to describe what he's done for golf.
The most popular player in the game's history in 50 years, we can talk about Tiger Palmer is as important a figure in 20th century sports as Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas. But he's never acted like an icon. Somehow, amid all the idolatry these last six decades, he's maintained a good nature. He still never passes an autograph-seeker without signing the autograph and engaging in a conversation and making actual eye contact with his fans.
"He was a legend who walked among us," Gary Player, another golf legend, said recently of Palmer. "He gave of himself. If you give to the fans, they give back. A lot of athletes are aloof. But Arnold was always aware of the man in the street."
Defying age if only for fleeting moments, Palmer exhibited a little of the old magic in his final round at the Masters. On the par three 12th hole, he knocked his tee shot within 7 feet of the pin. The gallery loved it, and Arnie, as fierce a competitor as there ever was in any sport, undoubtedly got as much enjoyment out of it, if not more, than from any of the many ovations he received.
Palmer has never lost that competitive fire. He still feels in his eternally youthful heart that he can win a tournament, any tournament, each time he steps up to the tee box on Thursday morning to hit his first drive. But he reluctantly admits his body no longer does what his brain still begs it to do. And who can't relate to that?
Palmer, whose Augusta swan song was one of those bittersweet, treasured television moments that make you reflect on your own life, is a father figure for us all. But for me, he's even more. My dad, too, was charismatic and kind and lived his life with great passion and dignity, and though he loved a lot of things including his family, music, sports and broadcasting, his greatest lifelong passion, like Arnie's, was golf.
A television personality himself for 50 years as well as a longtime newspaper golf columnist, my dad was a voracious and good golfer (a 3 handicap) who had the great pleasure of meeting Palmer on several occasions. Arnie never disappointed my father, who sadly died a year and a half ago. At his service, along with lots of pictures of family and friends, sat one large black-and-white shot of my dad and Arnie, on the golf course together, smiling.
When asked what his own late father would say about his remarkable 50-year run at Augusta, Palmer, who has two daughters and seven grandchildren and whose caddie during his final Master's appearance was his 16-year-old grandson, answered softly, "I guess he'd say the same thing he said the first time I won the Masters: 'You did good, boy'."
Precisely what every boy wants to hear from his dad, these words are a poignant reminder that every man who is a father, even the heroes among us, is also someone's son. Long live the king.