Arnold Palmer was a man of the people.
He was golf royalty, a man known as “The King,” but one who could relate to anyone.
When the four-time Masters Tournament champion died in September, remembrances poured in from all over.
“When you looked around that basilica at St. Vincent, his peers were there,” his close friend Russ Meyer said as he rattled off a who’s who of golf stars who attended the memorial service in Latrobe, Pa.
Plenty of journeymen pros also made the trip to pay their respects . Palmer made the game more popular thanks to his humble roots and his everyman qualities, and golf and golfers everywhere reaped the rewards.
“He had friends in all walks of life,” Meyer said. “Arnie made everyone feel special.”
Man of the people
Like the time Palmer and Meyer traveled with their wives to St. Andrews. Palmer was being made an honorary captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and he arrived at the home of golf late in the afternoon.
The group was soon joined by Palmer’s caddie for his two British Open triumphs, Tip Anderson, and the fivesome wound up in one of the local bars.
“It’s where the local guys go for a beer,” Meyer said. “One of them would look over and see Arnold, then he would elbow the guy next to him. Invariably, they would come over and get an autograph.
“We sat there and drank beer and played darts until about 8:30.”
"From the first day I walked on Augusta, it was something special to me. ... To get there was a great thrill."
The journey begins
Palmer’s love affair with the Masters and its patrons began in 1955. That was the year he made his debut and drove down Magnolia Lane for the first time.
Bobby Jones was his boyhood idol, and a victory in the U.S. Amateur earned him the coveted invitation.
“From the first day I walked on Augusta, it was something special to me,” Palmer said. “It was something I’d looked forward to for 25 years. To get there was a great thrill.”
Palmer didn’t know it yet, but he and the Masters would soon be forever intertwined.
The photograph is just as famous as the moment is controversial.
There’s Palmer, hands firmly on his hips, arguing his case during the final round of the 1958 Masters. Tournament co-founders Jones and Clifford Roberts are seated in a cart, listening intently. To Palmer’s left is Ken Venturi, his playing partner that day.
Palmer was 1-over par for the day when he reached the 12th hole. His tee shot on the par-3 over Rae’s Creek flew long and plugged into a bank behind the green.
Because of heavy rains the night before, a local rule offering relief from plugged lies was in place. Confusion ensued because Palmer and the rules official on hand were uncertain whether he was entitled to relief. Palmer played the muddy ball and carded a double-bogey five.
Then he played a second ball. After taking a drop, he pitched his ball close to the pin and made par.
The Masters rules committee, including Jones and Roberts, conferred on the matter. No immediate ruling was given, so Palmer had to continue playing.
Unsure of how the ruling would go, Palmer played aggressively on the par-5 13th and reached the green in two. He made the 18-foot putt for eagle.
Two holes later, Palmer was told he had been entitled to a free drop on the 12th and his par with the second ball would stand.
Palmer held on for a one-shot victory over Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins, and Venturi finished two back and tied for fourth.
“There was never any doubt that I was right. I had that confidence,” Palmer said in 2004. “(The official) came out and announced that I was right, and I was very elated about that and pleased. It only confirmed what I felt about the club and the tournament and everything else.”
Palmer’s play that year inspired Sports Illustrated writer Herbert Warren Wind to use the phrase “Amen Corner” to describe the action at the 11th, 12th and 13th holes.
“I felt that I should try to come up with some appropriate name for that far corner of the course where the critical action had taken place,” Wind wrote.
Made for TV
CBS producer Frank Chirkinian, who worked on Masters telecasts for nearly 40 years, lit up when he first saw Palmer on television at the 1959 Masters.
“Here comes Arnold, at the brow of the hill on 15, and this is my first experience with Arnold,” said Chirkinian, who died in 2011. “And you know, the camera either loves you or hates you. The camera fell in love with him, standing there next to his caddie, hitching his trousers, wrinkling his nose, flipping a cigarette to the ground. He hitched his trousers again and grabbed a club from his caddie. And he hits it on the green.
“I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, who is this guy?’ He absolutely fired up the screen. It was quite obvious this was the star. We followed him all the way.”
Palmer finished third as Art Wall Jr. made a charge of his own to win. But in Chirkinian’s mind, a new star was on the horizon.
“It was electrifying. He was just magic,” Chirkinian said. “It’s been a long love affair.”
The rise of Arnie’s Army
In 1960, Palmer cemented his status as a fan favorite with his stirring Masters finish. Going to the 17th hole on Sunday, Palmer trailed clubhouse leader Venturi by one.
Palmer erased the deficit with a 30-foot birdie putt, then won the tournament outright when he hit his approach to six feet from the hole to set up another birdie.
Palmer followed up that win with a thrilling comeback at the U.S. Open that summer. Combined with the popularity of television, Palmer had the game and personality to become golf’s leader.
The proof was in the large turnout Palmer attracted week after week. Arnie’s Army began in Augusta, but Palmer’s fans would flock to him anywhere he played golf.
While the origin of the term isn’t clear – most theories point to either the soldiers from Fort Gordon who manned the leaderboards or a couple of Augusta Chronicle employees who wrote a catchy headline – the name caught on. By the mid-1960s, Dan Jenkins had popularized it in the pages of Sports Illustrated.
“It was in 1961, after Palmer had twice won the championship, that Arnie’s Army was born – born in Augusta and fully mobilized,” Jenkins wrote in 1964. “As Palmer pursued Gary Player over the final nine holes of that Masters, the throngs were at their trampling, shouting, hurdling best.
“Once, as Arnold bent over a putt a voice from the crowd blurted, ‘Make this one, bubba, and you da leada of da tribe!’ And it was on the big scoreboard near the 11th green that a sign was posted, ‘Go get him, Arnie.’ ”
Shots made and missed
It wasn’t all fun and games for Palmer in Augusta, but his shortcomings perhaps endeared him further to his fans.
In 1961, Palmer was poised to become the tournament’s first repeat winner, and he was all smiles as he marched to his ball in the 18th fairway. A mere par would give him a one-shot victory over Player.
Palmer was so sure he was going to win that he even shook hands with old friend George Low in the gallery on the final hole.
He put his approach shot in the greenside bunker, then bladed a shot across the green. He walked off with a double bogey, losing by one to Player.
A year later, a focused Palmer won a three-man playoff thanks to five birdies on the back nine. He joked about his motivation.
“Maybe it helped me that everybody kept asking me how I made six at the last hole last year,” Palmer told reporters.
Palmer also was enormously popular with his fellow pros, even though he was routinely getting the better of them.
When Palmer and Dave Marr reached the 18th tee in the final round of the 1964 Masters, Palmer turned to Marr and asked his buddy a question.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?” Palmer said.
“Yeah, Arnold, you can make 12,” Marr replied.
Palmer didn’t oblige his friend’s request and made a birdie to win by six strokes over Marr and Jack Nicklaus.
That would be Palmer’s final major triumph.
Palmer finished no worse than fourth the next three Masters, but after 1967 he never seriously challenged again at Augusta National.
Meyer, the chairman emeritus of Cessna Aviation, and his wife, Helen, started coming to the Masters with Palmer and his wife, Winnie, in the mid-1960s.
Meyer missed out on seeing Palmer win at Augusta National Golf Club, but he had many memorable moments with Palmer. One that sticks out to Meyer speaks volumes about Palmer.
It was 1968, and Palmer had just missed the 36-hole cut at the Masters for the first time.
“We sat out on the terrace near the men’s locker room and people would come by, and he was just as nice as if he had just won the tournament,” Meyer recalled.
Palmer never lost his connection with the gallery.
In the weather-delayed first round of the 1999 Masters, Palmer waited in the clubhouse 90 minutes before going back to the 18th hole and finishing his round in front of a handful of patrons. He hadn’t made the cut in Augusta since 1983, and on this day he was headed for an opening round of 83.
But much to their delight, Palmer blasted out of the right-hand bunker to 18 inches and made the putt for par.
“Thanks for being here, Arnie,” one fan said to Palmer after the round.
“It’s what we come for,” another fan added.
From star to legend
By the time Palmer played in his 50th and final Masters in 2004, he was a titan of the game and a dues-paying member at Augusta National. He could visit the club and play anytime he wished.
But true to the values instilled in him by his hard-working father, Palmer didn’t spoil his family with regular trips to Augusta. His grandson Sam Saunders was a player with plenty of potential and would eventually earn a PGA Tour card, but he only played Augusta National twice with his grandfather.
“My grandfather was like his father,” Saunders said. “He never wanted us to feel privileged in any way.”
The first time he played Augusta National was with his grandfather and his father, Roy Saunders. The second time was a match that pitted team Palmer against Jack Nicklaus and one of his sons.
“I shouldn’t say it, but I will say we won the match,” Saunders said. “I had a fun day out there. I was hitting the ball a mile. I maybe shot 75, but had close to 40 putts. I was not mature enough to handle those greens.”
While he didn’t spoil the young Saunders, Palmer did select him for a very special honor: caddie for his 50th and final Masters.
“I can’t tell you what an amazing experience that was,” Saunders said. “It was such a big scene. It was overwhelming.”
Saunders remembers the standing ovations and the respect accorded his grandfather from his fellow competitors, but most of it is a blur.
He does recall Palmer carrying 21 clubs – well over the limit of 14 – during the practice rounds.
“I know he did it on purpose,” Saunders said. “He was big on toughening me up.”
In the days before energy drinks became popular, Palmer relied on a boost of energy from other sources. One was chocolate bars, and the other was a product called Bee Alive honey shots.
“He had one of them break in his pants, and he hands me a broken tube of honey,” Saunders said. “At times he treated me like a human garbage can. I had it running down my leg, too.”
Grandfather and grandson also shared a laugh over what happened at the par-5 15th during a practice round.
“He hit three or four practice shots that spun back into water, and he hands me a wedge and says, ‘Go get them,’ ” Saunders said. “Here I am in my caddie suit and trying to scoop these balls out. The crowd started to pay attention. I’d flip one out, and they’d go crazy. I turn around and see granddad and the other players laughing at me.”
Palmer was in no shape, physically, to hit a ceremonial tee shot last spring in Augusta. But that wasn’t going to stop him from making an appearance wearing his green jacket and giving those who ringed the first tee a smile and a thumbs-up.
He said goodbye to Augusta on a cool April morning, some five months before he died, standing alongside Nicklaus and Player.
“I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine,” said Nicklaus, who had tears in his eyes during the ceremony.
Two months later, the U.S. Open was played at Oakmont, not far from Palmer’s birthplace of Latrobe, Pa. He didn’t make an appearance at Oakmont, but he was spotted that week around Latrobe Country Club, where he grew up learning to play the game.
In mid-September, Palmer went into the hospital a few days after his 87th birthday for some pre-surgery tests. According to his close friend Meyer, Palmer was anemic and the hospital asked him to stay.
“I talked to him and he was fine,” Meyer said. “We teased each other. After the operation, we had plans to have dinner.”
His grandson called Palmer in the afternoon on Sunday, Sept. 25.
“This wasn’t a goodbye phone call in my mind,” Saunders said. “I wanted to let him know I was thinking of him. Anytime you go in for heart surgery over 80, it’s somewhat dangerous. I didn’t anticipate anything going wrong.”
Saunders told his grandfather that he was skipping an upcoming PGA Tour event to take care of his son.
“He said, ‘I want you to take care of your family,’ ” Saunders recalled.
Two hours later, Palmer died from complications of heart problems at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, with his daughters Peggy and Amy by his side.
The man who had played with such vigor and passion – the very definition of heart on his sleeve – had succumbed to heart failure. He left behind a legacy of thrilling victories and heartbreaking defeats, but through it all he carried himself with grace and dignity.
“I still think when the phone rings, it’s him,” Meyer said. “A lot of great memories.”
Saunders has yet to qualify for the Masters. But his grandfather got to see him earn his PGA Tour card, which was special in itself.
Their last words to each other were special, too.
“I told him that I loved him, and he told me he loved me,” Saunders said. “As sad as it is, I don’t think it gets any better than that.”