Monday, September 26, 2016

RIP Arnold Palmer: a lucky local says goodbye

Half the fun of watching Arnold Palmer golf was watching him extricate himself from impossible situations.

I don’t think he can club his way out of this one.

Then again he’s only been dead one day.

I’m touched by the number of people who’ve reached out to me over the death of a man I was privileged to call a friend.

They say it’s going to be alright, that time heals all wounds and that he’s gone on to a better place.

I say any place Arnold Palmer goes is automatically better.

I imagine years from now newcomers getting heaven orientation tours and hearing winged old-timers say, “Yeah, well, it’s always been heaven, but it just got so much better when Arnie got here.”

People ask how I’m doing.

I tell them I’m feeling about one part heartbreak; three parts euphoria — roughly the same proportions one would find in a refreshing Arnold Palmer tea.

Heartbreak because I’ll never again be able to banter with one of the most legendary and beloved men America’s ever produced; euphoria because, by God, I once did.

It didn’t start out that way, not back when I treated him with all due reverence.

I treated him the way you’re hearing him being treated in many of today’s loftiest eulogies. I’d preface my questions with accolades about his accomplishments, his humanitarian endeavors, his historical significance, etc.

In short, I’d blow sweet smoke up his ass.

That’s not my description. It was his.

After we’d become friends — I interviewed him more than 100 times from 2004 through August 16 — I sat down in his office and began the interview by saying how much I looked forward to our breezy exchanges. 

His exact words: “And I can’t tell you how much I look forward to you coming in here to blow so much sweet smoke up my ass!”

I kept waiting for the day he’d ask me to pull his finger.

Understand, this is the same guy who the week before had been at the Bush White House dining with Queen Elizabeth.

Talk about having the common touch.

Arnold Palmer, the drink, is one part lemonade; three parts unsweetened ice tea.

Arnold Palmer, the person? It was like he was one part champagne; three parts beer.

My assignment during most of my hour-long interviews was to get him to answer questions dictated by upcoming content of the next Kingdom Magazine (Kingdom is his luxury boutique magazine about all things posh and Palmer).

But my goal was always to say two or three things that would get him to throw his head back in wild laughter.

I remember one autumn interview that started late because he’d just come back from having a tooth yanked. Did he want to reschedule?

Hell, no.

First question: “It’s my understanding you’ll soon be departing Latrobe, where we’re about to endure four months of bitter weather, for sunny Orlando. My question is … Will you take me with you?

He roared with laughter.

Then he said no.

I don’t envy the men and women who are right now tasked with composing a proper obituary for a man so monumental.

Do you start that he was a great golfer who transformed sports? Or that he from scratch built a business empire Forbes estimates at $700 million?

Or do you start with the philanthropy? All the scholarships, the charity initiatives and the two renown hospitals that bear his name?

Certainly, you must include that he in 1976 set an aviation record for zooming around the globe in just 56 hours.

I wondered in 2013 why he agreed to so publicly endorse my “Use All The Crayons!” book. Then it dawned on me. I had it backwards.

My book is a de facto endorsement of his entire life.

My favorite quote about Palmer comes not from a golfer or president, but from an actor whom he barely knew. It was Kirk Douglas who in 1970 said, “No one — not Frank Sinatra, not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan — has more charisma than Arnold Palmer.”

John Paul Newport of the Wall Street Journal wrote on Palmer’s 80th birthday, “Lasting popularity of Palmer’s magnitude simply cannot be explained.”

The last question I asked him was August 16 (it may have been his last formal interview). The question: “Do you think there’ll be golf in heaven?”

Inconceivably, editors cut it from the story, hedging their bets, I guess, that Keith Richards wasn’t going to be the only one who’s going to live forever.

Palmer said: “Oh, I think there will be a lot of golf in heaven. I’ll bet Nelson and Hogan are up there having a match right now. I know a lot of guys who’ve been good golfers who are looking forward to resuming great matches with friends and family just like they did here on earth. I think the courses will be a lot like the ones here. But the hazards will include clouds that get in the way of approach shots. I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Had I known then it would be the last time I’d ever see him, I’d have dropped my pencil and thrown my arms around his once-robust, now-tottering frame and told him how much I loved him.

I’d have tried to do it in a way that would have convinced him I wasn’t just blowing sweet smoke up his ass. 

Who’s to say if there is golf in heaven?

All I know is heaven just got way more heavenly now that Arnold Palmer’s calling heaven home.

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John Durante said...


You have all my sympathy during this time.

Anonymous said...

I love the one part champagne three parts beer analogy.

Chris Rodell said...

Thank you, John, and you, Josh, are a discerning reader (you, too, John!). I was very proud of that line. I hope you'll continue to visit the blog.