Palmer still commands attention and respect as golf's unofficial ambassador of good will

Johnm Steadman

July 10, 1992|By John Steadman

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Obviously, Arnold Palmer never forgot where he came from since he still wears a Latrobe Country Club cap. More importantly, he has fulfilled, and even exceeded, the ponderous role imposed upon him as an emissary of what golf is supposed to be in the matter of both gentility and performance.

The applause builds to a crescendo as he is called to the first tee, and then the noise explodes with all the impact of thunder rolling down the mountainside.

Palmer, in acknowledgment, tentatively raises a muscular arm, burned to a walnut brown from a lifetime in the sun, and all seems right for those around him.

It's his way of responding to the clamor of the crowd. Either that or maybe a gentle nod, a tipping of his visor, which reads Latrobe C.C., where he learned the game as a child en route to manhood and master accreditation as one of the sport's most accomplished individuals.

The spectators absolutely, positively refuse to let go of their grip on Palmer. It's as if they are ready to concede that, yes, they've grown old in the span of three decades but he hasn't.

The calendar tells us Arnold Palmer is a senior citizen, age 62, playing the Senior Golf Tour and competing in the U.S. Senior Open Championship at Saucon Valley. It was only about a 3-wood shot away in Coopersburg, Pa., that he romanced and won the hand of Winnie Walzer, so this is a homecoming of sorts.

The popularity of Palmer is based on power and personality, a compelling combination that has endured on the American scene far longer than most public figures. It's difficult to find both characteristics embodied in a single person, be they athlete, actor or candlestick maker.

But his most important gift is being able to make people happy. And it seems as if he realizes he is a man of the public, a hero, and carries himself with the grace and charm that translates to a special distinction.

A former lawyer, turned caddy, Wayne Beck, with degrees from Alabama and Vanderbilt, came to the tour to try to forget the turmoil of a divorce. He is a perceptive observer and studies the passing parade of golfers and how they react in their daily pursuits.

Asked for an assessment of Palmer the man, he offered an extraordinary testimonial. "You could put all the nice guys of the world together and, collectively, they still couldn't match him. He doesn't know how to be unkind."

On the fourth hole of the opening round of the Senior Open, Palmer hit his shot and came over to talk to a little boy, whose head didn't even reach the gallery rope. It was almost a reunion since they have met before.

Patrick Fitzpatrick was here with his mother and father from Charlotte, N.C., and they will have seen Palmer play eight times this year. He recognizes the family and went out of his way to exchange pleasantries while waiting near the tee box for fellow players Miller Barber and Charles Coody to execute their shots.

"He's a genuine person," says Mrs. Debbie Fitzpatrick. "We all know what he represents to golf, but he realizes the fans have helped make the game, too." And Patrick Fitzpatrick Sr., who has a computer systems company, adds, "I tell the people working for me if they want to understand how to get along with their fellow man to study him."

Women older than Arnold giggle as if they are teen-agers again and scream his name as he approaches. Men admire the masculinity and strong good looks. And there's the immaculate, well-groomed appearance and the fact he dresses in a conservative style -- usually white shirt, steel gray slacks -- that has become for him a golfing uniform.

Palmer moves from tee to green with a strong, forceful stride. His swing -- never a picture in symmetry -- looks the same. It's almost an act of aggression against the ball, rather than a touch of grace as he abbreviates the follow-through rather abruptly.

The Palmer appeal is such that a television interviewer asked him last week what he would do if Ross Perot called to invite him to run on his independent ticket for president? "I'd tell him I was voting for George Bush," Arnold replied in what has to be one of the most spontaneous sound bites of this or any other year.

What Palmer was able to do for golf in winning 60 events on the PGA Tour and now 10 on the Senior PGA Tour, along with the way he won friends and admirers, caused a fellow competitor, Lee Trevino to evaluate Arnold's importance in a commercial way.

"I'd like to see Arnie win," he commented. "That would be the greatest thing that could happen to us. It would take the Senior Tour up another 2 million dollars next year."

To the credit of the other professionals, they are aware of what Palmer has done for them in elevating the game. In something this competitive, petty jealousies have been known to raise their ugly heads, but Palmer has never been a target for the back-biting or cheap locker room criticism.

The demands on his time are unrelenting but he keeps giving, and the world, golf included, is a better place because of the decency and respect he demonstrates toward those he meets along the fairways and in the roughs of life.

Bottom line and the most pleasing quality of all: Arnold Palmer makes people happy.

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