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A farewell to golf legend Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday

For the last several decades of his life, Arnold Palmer had shown up at golf tournaments without much of a game and no chance to win. He would shoot his 80’s and 82’s, frown at the bogeys and smile at the crowds, and we would nod and say, “Good for you, Arnie.” The fact is, if he shot 90 or 100, he was still Arnie and that’s what we came to see. Him, not his birdies.

But as much as he loved it – the competition, the occasional flicker of a fire from the past, the adoring galleries – he finally decided it was time to leave the game. After a horrendous round in a Champions Tour event, some 10 years ago, the then-76-year-old icon tearfully announced he had played his last competitive round.

He was going home, home to play in the daily shootout with his buddies, where his scores wouldn’t make his fans tsk-tsk as they stood in front of a scoreboard or read his name at the bottom of a list in the newspaper. Champions do not embrace sympathy.

Palmer died Sunday at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, according to his longtime assistant Doc Giffin. Palmer was hospitalized in preparation for heart surgery, but Giffin said he did not know the exact cause of death, according to news reports. He was 87.

He was our connection to golf’s highest reaches. For many years, he ruled the game but there was never the sense that he had lost touch with the common folk. He gave us his time, his smile, his autograph, his appreciation for our applause.

Palmer starred at Wake Forest before turning pro.

In his prime, he was a heroic figure, winner of 61 PGA Tour events, including seven major championships, and 12 Senior PGA Tour titles, but more importantly, he was adored as no other professional golfer ever has been.

He didn’t know how to stop being Arnie. That’s why he hung around as long as he did, into his late 70’s. He loved being loved, loved the crowds, loved hearing his name called from outside the ropes, loved being asked for his autograph, loved being Arnie. Without a tournament to play, he would never again be complete.

Actually, Arnie ceased being real a long time ago and became an image. Oh, he still slashed at the ball hard and sweated profusely and his shirttail came out but he was playing a game far removed from the one that won all those championships. For decades now, he has been playing a role, himself, as if it were a movie, and that allowed us to keep him, to say we saw Arnie play, to get his autograph and maybe that wink and that smile.

Palmer came along in the late 1950’s when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were fading. He captured the fancy of the public with his slashing, go-for-broke style, his mannerisms and his looks – a bit of D’Artagnon, a dash of Elvis -- and the game took off on an unprecedented surge of popularity. Even casual golf fans were attracted to him. To women, he was like a movie star. To men, he was one of them, a guy who swung from the heels, endorsed motor oil, liked a beer and couldn’t wait to tee it up again. When he was in the hunt, all he had to do was snuff his nose, hitch up his pants with his forearms and tug at this glove and electricity would run through the crowd. The knight had drawn his sword.

The most exciting golf played in the modern era was jammed into the seven-year span between 1960 and 1966, when Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – known then as the Big Three – won seven Augusta Masters, three US Opens, three British Opens and two PGA Championships.

Palmer’s victory in the 1960 US Open, when he came from seven shots down in the final round at Cherry Hills – driving the green on the par four first hole to get his rally started – defined him perhaps better than any of his other victories. Trying to drive every green and denting the cups with his aggressive putting, he had introduced the term charger into golf.

His worshipers wore Arnie’s Army badges and swarmed after him, shaking the trees with their shouts. He was once cheered simply for taking a drop. He was cheered when he emerged from the trees on Augusta’s 11th hole after disappearing for a couple of minutes to relieve himself – probably a first, and a last, in golf. Everyone wanted to be a part of Arnie’s Army.

But the years passed and Arnie turned grey like the rest of us.

If golf had a face, it would be his. He more than anyone else raised the purses, drew the crowds, lured the television. He saw himself as a caretaker of the game, speaking out to right a wrong, lecturing young players who didn’t understand their responsibilities, giving more time to the media than any other major star has come close to giving.

The time came, though, when he looked in the mirror and saw an old man, no longer D’Artagnon, no longer Elvis.

But forever Arnie.

Ron Green Sr. is a retired Observer sports columnist who covered Arnold Palmer for decades.

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