Arnie Agonistes

What is it about Arnold Palmer that's made him so beloved? Some have won more money, others more tournaments. He's certainly bright, but perhaps not as articulate as Jack Nicklaus. His career's inspired cheers and sympathy -- but not as much as Greg Norman's. Investigating the long-lived phenomenon of Arnold Palmer during the pro-am tune-up for the Senior Skins Game yesterday, I turned up a few illuminating things, before business took a highly emotional turn. Said matter-of-fact Jack Nicklaus, his greatest rival, "Arnold came along at the right time for the game -- and for him. Both of'em were a combination -- when Arnold came along, there really weren't any stars in the game, and the game was greatly needing somebody needing to take charge, and he did. And at the same time, television really surfaced, so Arnold became the guy as it relates to that." Nicklaus can't seem to remember the first time he played with Palmer, though he does recall watching him practice at the Ohio Amateur when Palmer was the defending champion and Jack was 14 years old. Tom Watson on the other hand, has no such problem. "Age 15, played an exhibition with him in Kansas City. And he -- he was bigger than life. He was my hero -- and Jack Nicklaus was the villain," he says with a smile. "And that was what rivalries are all about." Watson admits he was nervous, but "I was just startin' to grow, and hitting the ball a long way, and I hit about the best drive I've ever hit in my life." Then he breaks out into a full grin. "And he had to struggle to outhit me." Watson echoed Nicklaus's ideas about Arnold's significance to golf. "He came along right at the right time, with television in its infancy. Arnold was the common man's golfer, and he, along with Mark McCormack and television, jump-started the game of golf." "I think Arnold does the necessary things to make people adore him. He was in touch with the people who were watching him play. He looked everybody in the eye and everyone thought he was looking individually at them."

Still, though, there seems more to it than that. So you, the writer, do what writers are supposed to do -- chase him through the confusion of autograph-seekers, and catch up with him in the parking lot, and go ahead and ask him. You'll start with the genuine joy he seems to take in playing golf with people. A golfer I'd been paired with at a course the day before had told a story about going to play at Bay Hill 25 years ago, when a guy pulling his clubs out of the back of his Cadillac had called across the parking lot and asked if he and his buddies needed a fourth. "We get into the clubhouse, and someone comes up to us and asks if we wanted to play with Arnold Palmer. We couldn't believe it, but he was the man getting his sticks out of the car. I had one of my most enjoyable rounds ever. Great guy." And so maybe What It Is About Arnold is this fine perspective on golf he's acquired -- a sense that however much fun golf is, it's a game, and not the meaning of life. "Absolutely," he says, quite seriously. "Without question, my enjoyment of the game doesn't just come from winning tournaments or shooting under par every day -- it comes from the game itself, and the people that are involved in the game, I think that's a very important reason for me to continue to enjoy the game as I do now," he says, flashing that uncanny smile as he hands his golf shoes over to his son-in-law. Still it's not enough for you -- 'cause isn't there something about Arnold Palmer's brand of reknown? Maybe that it was minted at a time when fame was maybe less important but certainly less cheap? And so you ask him what made his kind of fame different than the kind they have now. And the answer is a bit more surprising. "I suppose you could look at it from a philosophical point of view. My wife was not a golfer, and she had a lot of interests other than golf, and she developed those interests, and I participated with her in those other interests -- whether it be the charity work she did, or the reading she did, or a lot of the things that she was very involved in. And that made our life complete." And now, you, the writer, find yourself going someplace else, a place you can't pretend you didn't anticipate -- but now that you're there, you start to hate yourself. For "going private" on this most public of men. For making his grief more grist for the mill. So, you try to wrap up some message of sympathy in the form of a question, muttering something about the world of golf and how it responded to the passing of his beloved wife a long, long few months ago. You ask about his sense of loss, and ... "what about the sympathy that's been offered"? "Well, yes, a lot, from all over the world, and ah--" he starts, and you'd have to be an idiot not to see what he's going through, not to mention what kind of an idiot you feel like having started it in the first place. And you try to look away, and your eyes find his daughter Amy, standing waiting by the trunk of the car, lovely and slender, wearing sunglasses that surely hide her own emotion -- but not the tension in her jaw, the image of her mother's, set against the onslaught of remembrance and emotion this very moment. Arnold Palmer, meanwhile, has stopped completely, doing not a very good job of concealing the flow of emotion, and has lifted his hand, big, knobby fingers outstretched, as though to dismiss the question, the whole line of it entirely -- or maybe just to ward off the very same onslaught of emotion); these being feelings we're talking about, you stand there imagining all the crud he's trying to hold with that gesture -- the strangers with their intrusive questions, the assorted little defeats; maybe even a few failings within; the exhaustion with it all. And then, having felt it, and given it its momentary release, and even noticing the effect it's had on you -- he's back with you. "That's basically it," he says, resignation with this unwelcome grief writ candid on his face. "It doesn't stop, and I suspect that it'll go on for a long time." You're relieved now, too, and manage to say something about how busy he's keeping himself. "She would have -- and did -- want me to live, and that's what we're doing. "And that's pretty much it." And it is. And as you take your leave, politely as you can under the circumstances, you realize he's allowed you not to feel entirely foolish, since even if -- at least you tell yourself -- even if a lot of people caring about one man's heartbreak means not a single thing, maybe it does.