Arnold Palmer considered the question, fighting back a mischievous grin.
This was in June 2016, and he was sitting in a golf cart behind his office just across the road from Latrobe Country Club, the Western Pennsylvania course Palmer grew up on as the son of the greens-keeper-club pro and later bought. Like much of the golfing public, he was trying to make sense of the U.S. Golf Association ruling that had nearly cost Dustin Johnson the title at nearby Oakmont Country Club a day earlier.
“I’ll tell you what I think: The USGA screwed it up,” Palmer chuckled, using an even saltier term, “but good.”
It was vintage Arnold, just being one of the guys and making you feel that way, too. He was frail at the time, but still feisty and besides, you rarely had to work hard to figure out how Palmer felt about things.
That voice was stilled Sunday night, when news of the death of the game’s “King” reminded millions why they took up the maddening game in the first place. But it will resonate for as long as golf is played.
Palmer acknowledged dozens of time how impossible the game was to master, but quick to add that few accomplishments gave him more satisfaction than taking control of it for a few magical moments. He spoke his mind on topics beyond the game and even late in life, as age and illness hobbled his once-powerful frame stole the timber from his voice, Palmer still radiated so much charm and candor that he still got his point across. Only months earlier, all it took was one of his million-dollar smiles for a photo shoot with Kate Upton to go viral.
That grin melted quickly in the heat on that June afternoon, though, as Palmer talked about the rest of his day. He’d just come from the practice range at Latrobe, where trying to hit balls left him frustrated. He crossed his arms in front of him, the opposite palm resting on his shoulders.
“I don’t have any strength left,” he said.
Not at that moment, but his surroundings spoke volumes about what a powerful man Palmer had been.
The walls of his office were covered with pictures of his family and testimonials and thank-you notes from U.S. presidents and local charities. Stacks of requests for his autograph were piled atop a desk, where Palmer plowed through them happily whenever he could squeeze out the time. A reception area twice as big as his office was lined floor to ceiling with the overflow — trophies, ribbons and plaques; almost too many to count — that reflected a life well-lived.
Across from his office was Palmer’s original workroom, stuffed with more than 5,000 golf clubs in various stages of being repaired or reworked. He learned to wield tools helping his father, Deacon, keep everything from the tractors at Latrobe to the members’ clubs in good working order, then began working on his own. As Doc Griffin, Palmer’s long-time friend and aide wrapped up a tour of the workshop, he pointed toward a few clubs on a nearby bench.
He’s still tinkering, Griffin chuckled.
Palmer never lost that working-man appeal. If anything, the man once described as having the strong hands of boxer Rocky Marciano and the forearms and shoulders of a blacksmith turned it into a legacy. He wintered in Florida, but spent his summers around Latrobe, never really leaving his hometown. After winning most everything the game offered, he bought the country club where members occasionally clashed with Deacon about his son’s temperament and his go-for-broke swing, and Palmer threw the doors open to the public.
None of the golfers who’d played the course that sunny June afternoon had any idea that golf’s “King” had been out among them. They were too busy taking in the scenery or struggling with their own games. A lucky few may even have been playing well enough to experience a moment of exhilaration that was writ large across Palmer’s face when he had been in pursuit of major championships.
As far as he was concerned, that would have been tribute enough.