How I Didn’t Get To Meet Arnold Palmer

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I was born in 1956 and Arnold Palmer won his first PGA Tour event – The Canadian Open – in 1955, so much of his success came before I was even aware of golf. In our home we got a color television set in 1970 and, it seems to me, that is when we started watching golf on TV. Especially when it was cold and snowy and generally miserable here for a good part of the year, both my parents and myself liked watching the lush settings and beautiful weather seen on golf tournaments from California or Hawaii or Florida. “Where’s that from?”, one of them would almost always ask when they walked into the living room and saw the screen filled with images of green grass, blue ocean, and palm trees. It usually meant that they would sit down and watch for a bit, not for the golf since they never played the game, but just for the visuals. By that time, Arnold’s days of contending on the Tour were largely over, but along with Jack Nicklaus they were the two big names everybody knew about.

Back then in the pre-cable days of only 2 over-the-air channels, all you could count on seeing were the four major championships plus the Canadian Open and a few others the Canadian networks might choose to offer on the weekend. But once cable arrived you could watch golf every weekend and I found that I liked it. In turn that led me to become interested in playing golf myself and that happened in the late 1980s. I took a few lessons and read a bunch of books, and among those were a few by Palmer that not only offered tips but were accounts of his life. It was then that I realized what an important role he had played in growing the game in the 1960s, and what an incredible businessman he had become. As I understood the history of the game more, I also realized how important and respected a figure he was, not just for his golf exploits. The tips I read never made me very good at the game but I went through a period where I was totally golf-crazy and played as often as I could.

In March of 1990 I visited Florida to spend some time with my dad who wintered down there, and drove over to Orlando to spend a few days doing some touristy things. On Sunday I decided to attend the Nestle Invitational (now the Arnold Palmer Invitational) at Bay Hill, the PGA Tour event at Arnold’s club. It was the first Tour event I attended and was a wonderful day. Golf fans may remember this as the tournament where Robert Gamez holed out from the 18th fairway later that day to win the event and give Greg Norman another heartbreaking defeat. But earlier in the day when I arrived I spent some time wandering around taking it all in until I finally joined a crowd surrounding the 1st tee where the groups starting their rounds were being announced.

There was a large gallery there many rows deep and from my spot near the back I could see very little. But people were constantly coming and going so I was able to gradually make my way to the front and eventually snag a spot next to the ropes to watch the players hit their opening tee shots. In between groups there was a lot of chatter among the gallery and I overheard a couple behind me talking about how they really couldn’t see much. Glancing back, I saw they were an older couple, probably in their 60s, and both rather diminutive. Shortly thereafter someone on one side of me left and I slid over to make space and gestured for them to move up next to me at the rope line.  They were grateful and we chatted about where I was from and what to do there during the day. When the man – I believe his name was Tony Ruggiero, but I can’t be certain now, 26 years later – realized how far I had come, he asked me “Would you like to meet Arnie?”

Well, duh. It turned out he worked for Arnie in some capacity at Bay Hill, and he could get me in to meet him. I was thrilled, and he said that as soon as the last groups had teed off, we would go over to the Clubhouse and he would introduce me. Not to mince words – I was as excited as hell.

The remaining groups were seemingly taking forever to come through and I couldn’t wait for it to all be done so we could go meet Arnie. Suddenly Tony’s wife was stricken with a coughing spell that would not go away.  Maybe she inhaled a fly or something, I don’t know. Well, you can’t have someone hacking away when pro golfers are trying to tee off, so he quickly hustled her away from there to attend to whatever had afflicted her. I never saw them again for the rest of the day. Bye-bye to meeting Arnie. No handshake, no autographed program, no thanks for coming from the great man. I couldn’t believe it.

It obviously made an impact on me because it stayed with me and about 10 years later, I remember writing a letter to Mr. Palmer to tell him the story. But when I finished it, I re-read it and thought “Why would he want to read about this? I’m not even sure of the guy’s name or if he actually worked for him”, and never sent it. Now I wish I had. When I would see him on television over the last few years I could tell he was slowing down verbally, and this year it was shocking to see him on the telecast of his tournament. He was obviously not doing well and did not look very good. It was the same story a month later at The Masters when he wasn’t able to hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. I didn’t know all the details about the many health problems he grappled with over the last few years that came out today after his passing, but he had multiple ailments so his passing on Sunday wasn’t really a surprise but it was still very sad. Getting old is not for the faint of heart. Rest in peace, Arnie.

PS: One of Arnie’s many business ventures was being a co-founder of the Golf Channel in 1995. It has become a huge success, and last night when I saw the news break on Twitter I switched them on for details. They were still doing live coverage of a Champions Tour event – the Tour that Arnie helped create – but I was surprised to see no crawl on the bottom of the screen with any info at all. But finally they left the live golf in mid-playoff and went to what they do best, with continuous live programming with a revolving roster of guests live or on the phone to talk about their reactions to the news and their memories of the man. It was obvious they had taken an hour or so to scramble everyone into on-air mode from the site of the Ryder Cup in Minnesota later this week where they were still getting things set up.

I had planned to go to bed fairly early Sunday night but I just couldn’t turn it off because it was just so engaging. The emotion shown by network long-timers Rich Lerner and especially Kelly Tilghman during a live hit from Orlando was something you almost never see from TV people.  I felt so sorry for her because she was really hurting. The on-site people in Minnesota like Tim Rosaforte and Mark Rolfing were still coming to grips with the news and it was tough for them not to show their feelings. Fred Couples, the pro golfer, started to talk about Arnie on a phone hookup and immediately broke down wailing, saying “I can’t do it!”. I thought they were being pranked by some jerk. But it was indeed Fred, and he came back on the line after a few minutes, more composed this time. They had similar emotion from Annika Sorenstam, someone who normally seems pretty unemotional. It was somber but also entertaining as the night went on as the stories started to come out after the shock and sadness. It was like that all night, with great stories from everyone they talked to, people like Lanny Wadkins and Rocco Mediate and Jim Nantz of CBS and Jimmy Roberts of NBC. I gave up and finally went to bed at 2:30AM and they were still going, in their fifth hour of live commercial-free coverage. Well done, Golf Channel.

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