At 8:36 p.m. Sunday night I received a text from Alex Miceli, publisher of Golfweek magazine. “Ted, Arnold passed away today.”
Five words. One Sentence. A message that I will never forget and always remember exactly when and where I was when I got the sad news that Arnold Palmer, The King of Golf, had died at the age of 87.
There are thousands of stories being written this week about Arnold and how he uniquely touched the lives of so many. Depending on your age, you remember him as a great golfer, a philanthropist, a celebrity and certainly the face of golf. Arnold is to golf what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Palmer transcended the sport of golf.
On March 27, 2013, I met with Arnold in his Bay Hill office to discuss the United States Golf Association’s proposed ban on anchoring. Palmer had been a vocal supporter of the USGA over the years as you would expect from a former U.S. Open champion.
He had the utmost respect for the rules and traditions of the game. The purpose of the meeting was not to change Palmer’s mind, it was simply to explain why the PGA of America opposed the proposed ban.
Palmer was relatively quiet on that day. As he listened intently to my thoughts on anchoring, he looked down at his desktop and pushed two of his trademark umbrella pins around the desk with his massive index fingers.
When I finished he looked up, raised his hands in the air and said, “My fear is that all of this will lead to two sets of rules in the game and that would be bad for golf.”
I figured that was my cue that this meeting was over. When I stood up from the chair directly in front of his desk, Palmer looked sternly at me and asked, “What’s your hurry?”
As I sat down he started talking about his family. He pulled out some pictures of his grandchildren. Then he pointed his finger at me and said, “Now I’m going to tell you some things about the PGA of America that you may not know.”
The PGA Championship was the only major championship that Palmer never won, so his relationship with the PGA was different.
But, on this day he wanted to talk about his father, Deacon, who in Palmer’s words was “a cripple.” Arnold said his dad was denied PGA membership for a time because of his physical handicap.
Arnold bristled as he told the story. It was obvious that there were deep-seeded feeling of animosity toward the PGA. I listened to what he said and even though I knew the PGA never discriminated against handicapped people I felt compelled to research the matter.
A couple of weeks later, I sent him a two-page letter detailing the timeline of his dad’s career which ultimately did result in a PGA membership in 1946. However, there was clearly a nine-year time lag between when Deacon was eligible and when he actually became a PGA member.
A year went by and I still had not heard from Palmer. Eventually, I broached the subject of the letter at the 2014 Masters when I served as a rules official with Dow Finsterwald, the 1958 PGA champion and longtime friend of Arnold’s.
Dow had lunch a few days later with Arnold at Bay Hill and asked if he had received the letter.
When Palmer said he did, Dow asked why he hadn’t responded. Palmer said, “Because I don’t know what I want to say yet.”
I had become convinced that something did happen with Deacon Palmer and his attempt to be a PGA member. He only needed a couple of signatures from members of the Tri-State PGA in order to become a member. It was back in the 1930’s when this was in question.
Unfortunately no one was still around who could shed any light on the situation. Was it because Deacon actually got into golf as a greenskeeper and he was looked down on by PGA professionals? Or, was it because he was handicapped? One thing was for sure, Arnold felt positive that the circumstances were unfair.
Ultimately, I returned to Bay Hill to present Arnold and his daughter, Amy Saunders, with the idea of creating the Deacon Palmer Award which would recognize a PGA professional who embodied all of the characteristics of Deacon. The annual award winner would be someone who was a servant to their golf club and community who went out of their way to teach and promote the game but most importantly the person had overcome a major obstacle in their life on the way to a successful career in golf.
When I explained what we wanted to do with the Deacon Palmer Award and asked for Arnold’s blessing it was a monumental moment in my life.
He looked at me, tears streaming from his eyes and said, “Pap would have liked that.”
The relationship between the PGA of America and Arnold Palmer had been resurrected. As I reflect back to my PGA presidency, those two meetings with Arnold in his Bay Hill office were so special because it exposed a side of Arnold Palmer that very few people ever saw.
He was The King, but he was also a man of the people. He was confident, but never cocky. Every autograph he signed was clear and legible. Arnold Palmer founded his own hospital, flew his own plane and concocted his own drink. And all of that was in his free time.
Tom Watson might have said it best when he talked about the impact Palmer had on today’s professional golf tour, “Frank Beard said that we owe 80 cents of every dollar we earn to Arnold. That’s true.”
Today, The King is dead. But, the impact he made on millions who enjoy the sport of golf will truly transcend time. He wasn’t the greatest golfer who ever played the game, but he is without a doubt the greatest man ever associated with golf.
Ted Bishop is director of golf and general manager of The Legends Golf Club in Franklin and a past PGA of America president.