A hero inspires. Not for a minute, or a day. But for a lifetime. My hero is Arnold Palmer and he has inspired me ever since I first saw him take a swing at Wethersfield Country Club in the late 1950s. Palmer didn't play golf to be ordinary or to make a simple living. He played golf to change a generation and move a sport from the country club setting onto the national scene. He succeeded more than anyone including himself or his family could have possibly imagined.
Palmer was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the son of a greenskeeper and strict authoritarian. He was allowed to play golf on the course as a kid, but only on limited occasions. He was not a member and his father, Deacon, made that clear to him right from the start. So, Palmer practiced and observed and played on a variety of public courses.
As soon as he hit high school, the coach knew that he had a special commodity. Palmer played with a flair reserved for few in the rather staid world of golf. The flair was infectious and so was his winning. First, high school titles. Then local and state amateur titles, and then national amateur titles. A full golf scholarship to Wake Forest University followed. So did a chance meeting with a William and Mary golfer by the name of Mark McCormack, later to become a lawyer after graduating from Yale and then the founder and CEO of IMG, the first and now largest sports marketing firm in the world.
McCormack saw, and later I realized as a young and impressionable golfer, that Palmer didn't go for the green. He went for the pin. He didn't play to win golf tournaments, he played to break records. And perhaps more importantly, he played to encourage a whole generation of middle class people to take up a sport that they never ever could imagine that they would be playing. Palmer was his first, and probably his most, important client of all time. And he has represented them all. From sports to politics to religion.
Palmer, because of his unique style, lost far more tournaments than he won. But he never gave up. He cost himself the 1967 US Open to Billy Casper in San Francisco by trying to break the tournament record and not just win the prestigious title. But in his losing he taught people such as myself about effort, grit and determination.
I have met Palmer on about 9 occasions throughout the country and I would never delude myself into thinking that he remembered me. But when I had an opportunity to speak with him, he made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. I once asked him to take a look at my swing. He had literally thousands of other things to do at that moment, but took the few minutes and gave me his comments. I later learned that that same character didn't want any special treatment. When he called to make a dinner reservation, he just used the name Arnold and was willing to wait in line to eat. He dined with presidents, but was just Arnie to the world. Four masters gold championships didn't change the kid with the big grin from Latrobe.
I had an opportunity once to speak with his longtime caddie. He told me that Palmer never walked off the golf course without signing every last autograph. Not the obligatory dozen that a Tiger Woods, Jimmy Connors or Sammy Sosa would sign. But every last one. Kids, adults or seniors -- they were all treated the same.
What did I learn from Arnold Palmer? To take chances. To fully understand that you only live once. And probably more importantly, to be kind to everyone who crosses my path, no matter how significant or insignificant in my life. Arnold Palmer began to play golf before the word icon hit our national parlance. But he has defined the word icon for more than a generation of golfers and sports fans alike. He is and has been my hero for more than 40 years. And I am proud to say that.