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Remembering why The King of Golf, Arnold Palmer, was so beloved — the legend was a gentleman

By Ryan Clark
Special to NKyTribune

He’s The King. And If you were lucky enough to meet Arnold Palmer, you had a story about Arnold Palmer.

My story with him began in the spring of 2003. I was a student on a prestigious internship at a great newspaper – The Orlando Sentinel, just down the street from Disney World in Florida. I was able to cover a myriad of sports, from baseball’s Spring Training to NASCAR to golf.

The Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando is a golf tournament held on one of Palmer’s courses. And that week I was assigned the duty – or privilege – of following Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as they played a pro-am, or practice round, on the course.

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer

But I was a newbie. A rookie. I had no idea what I was doing. Like, I didn’t know where to park. I didn’t know where, or when, to be on the course. I didn’t know when I was supposed to talk to the athletes.

So I did the only thing I could think of: I got there early. I quickly found Mr. Palmer and Mr. Nicklaus. Then I stuck to them like Elmer’s.

And more than 400 spectators came out that day to watch the pair of legends.

Palmer was the one who’d put golf on the map. He was the first true superstar in the sport, and he made millions by endorsing products in commercials and ads. He was a pioneer, good looking and a true champion. He was also my Granddad’s favorite golfer. Nicklaus then came on the heels of Palmer, and bested him in wins and major championships.

Together, they were a couple of rock stars.

So everywhere they went I was there too, trailing behind like a lost puppy. When they stepped out on to the course, I tagged along, only held back by the ropes that marked where the fans could and could not walk. Sometimes, folks would shout various things at the athletes, and the golfers would converse back in a lighthearted way. This was a practice after all, really more for the fans than anything else.

But for Palmer and his fans it was extra special. He hadn’t thought he was going to play the course that year. The 2002 campaign was rough on him, and he declared he was not fit to play in front of his adoring fans. Only after a few good rounds in 2003 did he decide to come back out. And on his first drive, he hit it straight and long and far.

“He’s still got it!” screamed Anthony Travis of Orlando.

The family man

The family man

The King then nailed a 12-foot putt to par that first hole.

Palmer, then 73, went on to shoot a disappointing (for him) 14-over 86. (Funny, because most amateurs would kill for these scores – even those 40 years his younger).

As I walked along that day, Palmer himself finally noticed me. I’d been shouting questions at him from the gallery of fans, and he’d responded to everything I asked. Finally, when he came off the course at the 18th green, he looked and motioned me to walk over.

I did, and he asked me who I was. When I told him I was a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, he laughed.

“Most of the reporters just stay back and wait until we’re done to talk to us,” he said. “It was nice to see you out there on the course.”

I didn’t really understand. I told him I was new. “So … we can talk with you after you play?” I asked.

He laughed. “Of course – we have a press conference after every round,” he said. “You can come ask all your questions then.”

I felt pretty dumb. I’d been shouting questions at him from the gallery all day. When I told him I didn’t know we had press conferences after the practice rounds, I also apologized for shouting so much.

He only laughed. “I wondered about that,” he said. Then he gestured toward the media tent where I’d set up my computer. “It’s right over here.

The Legend

The Legend

And then, the King of Golf led me to the special media area, where dozens of writers already waited. He greeted us all, then nodded to me and let me ask my questions. He was not happy with how he’d played, but he was more than glad to talk to all of us.

That’s not normally how it is with athletes. In fact, it’s pretty rare.

But Palmer was definitely rare. He was one of the best his sport has ever seen. He paved the way for all athletes when he began to endorse products and design his own courses. LeBron and Kobe owe a debt of gratitude to him, not to mention Tiger and Rory. He was a total legend.

Yesterday, we lost a total legend.

Back on that day in 2003, I saw an 8-year-old girl run out on to the course to give the man flowers and a kiss on the cheek. The little girl’s name was Lisa Hacker, and she was from Tampa. She told me she’d been coming to the tournament for six years.

“He’s one of my top five favorite golfers,” she told me, sounding much more mature than her eight years.

I told her I’d have to agree.

Now, 13 years later, I’ve thought back to Palmer and how unbelievably nice he was. He really was as genuine as everyone says. I know because he helped me out when he didn’t have to. I can say that about only a few other athletes.

So I’d have to reassess my rankings of famous golfers.

Now, I’d have to say the King is most certainly No. 1.

Ryan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington.

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