Arnold PalmerArnold Palmer's reign as golf's undisputed champion was quite brief, lasting from his comeback win at the 1960 US Open, the event where he really became "Arnie" and the 1962 US Open he lost in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus. His reign as golf's most cherished legend never ended and never will, even in death.
After that '62 Open, Palmer was one of the Big Three along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. He never won a major after the 1964 Masters. By the end of the '60s, he was no longer a true contender in the majors. Nobody cared. He was Arnie forever, maybe not the golfer fans wanted to be (all golf fans play golf), but always the golfer they loved the most.
Don't get me wrong. Palmer was a great champion. He won seven majors, including back to back Open championships, a tournament he pretty much saved by rekindling American interest in it. But the overriding fact of Palmer's career, no life, was the enormous affection he generated among people who never met him.
What makes some athletes loved, while others, equally great, must make do with respect? Why is one boxer Muhammad Ali and another Joe Frazier, one outfielder Willie Mays and another Hank Aaron? Why was Arnie Arnie and Nicklaus, the golf's all time champ, Jack, given more reverence than true fondness?
Beats me. That question gets close to mysteries of human existence way, way above my pay grade. But I'll hazard a guess. The athletes who inspire the most love are the ones who best project love for what they do, who show exuberance on top of their excellence.
No one ever lived who loves golf more than Nicklaus, who's a warm-hearted passionate person to boot. But Jack's love showed itself in scholarly focus and steel concentration. Palmer's love for his game was worn on his short sleeves. It was a reckless love, a teenager's love, foolish and wonderful all at once. Two of Palmer's most famous tournaments featured defeats due to blown leads, the '61 Masters and '67 US Open. Those only made fans love him more. Fans know love hurts sometimes.
Palmer took that love and used it to become the first sports brand/marketing conglomerate. When a man is still doing commercials in the last year of a long life, his connection with the public is an awesome power.
What generated that power? In the end, it might be boiled down to a simple formula.
Arnold Palmer, champion golfer, embodied a truth all us hackers come to know. There's no such thing as a bad day on the golf course.
No truth of life is always true. Today will be a bad day for every golfer on every golf course on the planet.