Published in FirstMonday magazine, By Sarah Sekula
Arnold Palmer is a worldwide golfing icon; that goes without saying. Take a deeper look, however, and you’ll see why the world loves him for more than his over-torqued swing.
Consider this: In addition to racking up four Masters, seven other major championships and 62 victories on the PGA Tour from 1955 to 1998, Palmer, a.k.a. “The King,” is also a licensed pilot; CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises; designer of 300 golf courses worldwide; Wheaties box poster boy; humanitarian; cancer survivor; and, as sportscaster Red Smith once said, “the deity of the 1960s,” a man who possessed “that special personal quality that can move his idolaters to rapture.”
His fame is global — from Iran, where he once had high tea with the crown prince, to Sri Lanka, where onlookers watched him ride atop an elephant, to the nation’s capital, where he once sat in on a presidential brainstorming session with Richard Nixon.
That’s just how Palmer rolls.
So, why doesn’t he just take a breather for once? You know, swing in a hammock on some secluded island and soak up the marvels of the easy life.
The answer: “There are still things I want to do,” he said in July, two months before turning 80.
For one, there are so many charities that could use his golden touch. Plus, as Doc Giffin, his personal assistant for the past 43 years, adds, “Quite a few people and their work are dependent on his continued activities in business and golf. He has never expressed any desire to retire.”
And so, he keeps up the pace.
In July, Palmer had just returned from a two-day Champions Tour event. The previous night, he’d piloted his Cessna Citation X back to his Latrobe County, Pa., home for a full week of meetings. The down-to-earth golf superstar still has the spunk he had when he won his first Masters back in 1958.
And lucky for us, he continually lends that vigor to the Central Florida community.
Despite the busy schedule that his gargantuan status demands, he keeps an eagle’s eye on his beloved hospitals, Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. There’s not a day that goes by, he says, that he isn’t thinking about those projects and how to keep them going strong.
Man on a Mission
Those endeavors started back in the early 1980s. Serendipity played a part, you could say. Friend and Orlando businessman Frank Hubbard asked Palmer if he’d accompany him on a tour of the Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Coincidentally, Palmer had been searching for a charitable cause to support. Afterward, Palmer recalls, “I was a little dismayed with the conditions.” His daughter, Amy Saunders, adds, “He found the smell of the hospital intolerable.”
Palmer says Hubbard later told him that “If I was so outspoken about the hospital, why didn’t I lend my name to a children’s hospital.”
It was a “no-brainer” for Palmer, who has a soft spot in his heart for children. There was one caveat, though; he insisted on a place that did not smell like a hospital, and if his name was on the building, it must live up to his standards.
After seeing all the tiny babies on life support and the young children battling cancer, the floodgates opened. The Palmer Effect kicked in.
Like rapid fire, other golf stars, such as Greg Norman and Scott Hoch, got involved, too. In fact, after winning the Las Vegas Invitational in 1989, Hoch, whose son was treated at the hospital for a rare infection, donated $100,000 of his first-place check to the hospital.
Funny thing is, Hubbard originally asked Palmer only to lend his name and kick in a donation. Yet, Palmer had bigger plans. He surpassed the $10 million fund-raising goal and instead raked in $30 million for the hospital, not to mention that he has devoted much of his adult life to the cause.
When it all came together, the results were astonishing. The day the facility opened, Aug. 23, 1989, is still crystal clear in Palmer’s mind. Walt Disney World characters were singing. Friends, family and reporters were scattered about. Speeches were made. Balloons were released.
Everything was going smoothly until Billy Gillespie, 6, a patient at the hospital, inched up to the microphone and personally thanked Palmer. That did it. Tears began flowing down Palmer’s face. The project would forever take residence in the hearts of both Palmer and his late wife, Winnie.
On the fairway, Palmer was known for his unorthodox corkscrew swing and his reckless style. An L&M cigarette often dangled from his lips, and he sported a fierce competitive nature. That said, it’s surprising how often he let his sentimental side take center stage.
He shed tears when he made the 36th-hole cut at the Bay Hill Invitational in 1991. He got misty eyed when President Bill Clinton gave him a National Sports Award. And he choked back tears walking the fairway of Augusta National Golf Club for the final time in 2004.
That’s part of his appeal; he’s emotional.
Beyond that, “He is a magnetic personality,” says Giffin. “People just naturally gravitate toward him. Part of that is because he likes to be around people.”
“He treats everyone like he knows them and is their friend, even if he has just met them five minutes before,” says Scott Wellington, tournament director for the Arnold Palmer (formerly Bay Hill) Invitational. “The more time you spend around him, the more these things begin to rub off on how you, in turn, treat people on a daily basis.”
Slice of Life
Since the 1960s, Palmer has been a catalyst here and in countless communities around the world. Staying in constant touch with the hospitals’ head honchos, he stills plays a central role in the hospitals. In fact, he continues to garner million-dollar contributions and personally greets many guests and donors.
In addition, he has a dedicated life force keeping the dream alive: his daughter. After losing her mother to peritoneal cancer in 1999 and surviving breast cancer herself, Saunders, one of his two daughters and a resident of Windermere, became more involved. “It’s an honor and a privilege to carry on this legacy,” she says, “not only on behalf of my parents, but because I so personally believe in this organization.”
Simply put, they both meet people each day who have been touched by the hospital. “I’ve seen them not just in Florida but everywhere I go,” says Palmer, “on the West Coast, in Europe.”
Palmer’s influence reaches so far, in fact, that the U.S. Golfing Association has been gathering Arnold memories on its Web site since mid-May. “It seems that almost everyone in and around the game has their own Arnold Palmer story,” says Rand Jerris, the USGA’s director of communications.
Call it more Palmer Effect.
The tally at press time: 718 responses, including comments from notables like former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and baseball’s Tommy Lasorda and Cal Ripken. Fellow golf legend Tiger Woods took the time to comment, saying: “[Palmer] truly cares about everyone. To have a role model like him makes us all try a little harder.”
Unlike many of today’s athletes, who show up in headlines for all the wrong reasons, Palmer understands the power of his image and feels compelled to protect it. He’s never let the hype and hoopla change his ways. Instead, he surrounded himself with star-studded greats he could learn from. His mentors, like Bob Hope (with whom Palmer starred in a movie) and the 34th U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, were treasured friends he never took for granted.
Palmer, indeed, keeps good company. And even the powerful have been attracted by his easy, charismatic style.
The year was 1958. Palmer had won his first Masters. “The first thing that I heard after I won was would I play a round of golf on Monday with the President.” His response: “Certainly. I was flattered that he wanted to do that. We started a relationship that I am extremely pleased and proud of. He was just exactly the kind of guy I thought he would be.”
The duo really hit it off. Eisenhower adored hearing about Palmer’s adventures on tour. Palmer loved hearing Eisenhower recount wartime experiences and comment on current events.
For years they’d meet to play cards, have dinner or just chat. On Palmer’s 37th birthday, Eisenhower paid a surprise visit to his home in Latrobe. “There were few men walking the planet who could match the character, charisma and unpretentious charm of Dwight David Eisenhower,” says Palmer in his autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life.”
As was the case with Eisenhower, the beloved Palmer’s most valuable asset may be his irresistible charm. In 1960, Sports Illustrated labeled him an “authentic and unforgettable hero.” Life called him the brightest star of the golf world. His accessibility and prowess on camera throughout the 1970s, in fact, ushered in the modern golf era. Talk about an athlete with cultural relevance.
And “Arnie’s Army,” as his gaggle of supporters is called, is still out in full force. Palmer receives requests to play golf with people all over the country, make get well phone calls to and attend the weddings of total strangers.
“It’s amazing how his star has never dimmed,” says Giffin.
His planned birthday celebrations are a testament to that fact. Although he hasn’t played a regular Champions Tour event in several years or a PGA Tour in more than five, the crowds will still flock to see him at his celebrations this month. Even people who were not even alive during his prime can’t get enough of him. They treat him as a higher being.
And rightfully so.
Most people would agree that if there’s one thing that matches his oversized talent, it’s his generous heart.
“From the beginning of my father’s career,” his daughter describes, “he reciprocated the adoration and respect of his fans by showing them the same. It has endeared him to many and has given him the opportunity to garner support for many causes.”
Editor’s note: For more about donating to the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation, visit www.orlandohealth.com/arnoldpalmerhospital.