IMHO: Palmer’s Admirers Stretched to Valley

  • Courtesy photograph

  • File- This April 9, 2004, file photo shows Arnold Palmer walking across the Hogan Bridge on the 12th fairway for the final time in Masters competition during the second round of the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Palmer, who made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as "The King," died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Pittsburgh. He was 87. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Valley News Sports Editor
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Austin Eaton III found it no great surprise, with the Sunnehanna Amateur staged in Johnstown, Pa., near Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe hometown, that he’d bump into the King when he competed in 2004.

Eaton just didn’t anticipate what would come out of his mouth.

“I shook his hand briefly, tried to talk to him and could not get a word out,” said Eaton, a former New London resident, in a phone interview on Monday morning. “It was crazy. It was one of those things, that I was so awestruck that I think I babbled a couple of things and smiled. I’d love to have it over again.”

Wouldn’t we all?

Palmer, probably the person most responsible for popularizing golf in this country, died Sunday at the age of 87. There’s no understating his role in the sport, a charismatic competitor who arrived just as television was coming into its own as a medium for the masses. He touched the golfing world, including our little corner of it.

Golf — either from playing it or, beyond that, selling it — has taken Hanover’s Scott Peters everywhere. Without Palmer, Peters doubts he’d be in the business today.

“I believe this to be the case: There’s a very real chance that there would never have been a Golf & Ski Warehouse if not for an Arnold Palmer,” said Peters, the president of the West Lebanon-based retail golf chain. “I say that from the standpoint of what he meant to the game. There would be golf without him today, but not golf as we know it, for the masses. It wouldn’t be cool to play golf.”

Can we stop for a moment and agree on one thing? Cancel the rest of 2016 now, because it’s been an unmitigated disaster in terms of losing the people who have so inspired us.

David Bowie’s magic: gone. Prince’s playfulness: gone. Gene Wilder’s impishness: gone. Elie Wiesel’s bright light: gone. Nancy Reagan’s grace: gone. The list, painfully, continues.

Pick your sport. Few, if any, have been immune. Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Pat Summitt, Joe Garagiola, Jose Fernandez, Bud Collins, Dave Mirra, Bill Johnson. Enough, already.

Even if golf isn’t your thing, you knew Arnold Palmer. Outgoing, friendly, he was everything so many of today’s professional athletes aren’t or won’t be. When you had his attention, nobody else mattered.

“His impact was great, specifically with golf, but more so with the Masters and how to translate the game, the appeal that he had and how he created that appeal,” Peters said. “It inevitably allowed golf to become much more mainstream.”

Peters told of a trip to a Las Vegas merchandise show in 1995. He was at a cocktail party hosted by Palmer’s company, ProGroup, one in which the guest of honor was expected once he was done playing in a PGA Senior Tour event in Seattle.

“He shows up on his 66th birthday, and I know that because he shot a 66 on his birthday in a senior event,” Peters recalled. “He’d just flown in, and put it this way: He was feeling good. He was pretty happy about his 66, on his birthday, and he had this twinkle in his eye, and maybe he’d had a cocktail or two.

“He had this aura, had this presence. It was very cool, and it was the uniqueness of the day, his birthday, shooting his age. I’ve got a picture in my office of that day and that meeting.”

Additionally, Palmer proved to be gold as a pitchman, taking his on-course charm and seeming trustworthiness to push motor oil, rental cars, the iced tea-lemonade concoction that ultimately bore his name. “I went and bought a couple of cases of Arnold Palmer today and threw them on the counter,” Peters said on Monday. “Everyone coming into the store is getting a free Arnold Palmer.”

It’s the suddenness of Palmer’s departure that’s making me melancholy. Howe came close to dying 15 months before he eventually did; hockey fans everywhere had been expecting it. Ali had been fighting Parkinson’s disease for years, Summitt a form of Alzheimer’s; their departures were no less sad, but still anticipated.

The timing also hurts. The Ryder Cup begins this week in Minnesota, not far from where Eaton now lives and works in real estate. Palmer’s name is all over the American record book: most singles matches (11), tied for most singles points (7), second in total points (23), fifth in matches played (32).

“If Mr. Palmer had passed during the event, it would be a different story,” said Eaton, who is taking his 8-year-old son, Mason, to a practice round today. “By the time Sunday rolls around, the competition will be at the forefront. I would like to see the U.S. team wear some pink shirts in his honor instead of red, white and blue. He often wore pink; that was his emblem.”

Mr. Palmer — Peters prefers that honorific, too — was showing his age. But sometimes the news still gobsmacks you, and all you can do to assuage the grief is seek the photo album.

Eaton finished 19th at the 2004 Sunnehanna and, later that year, won the U.S. Mid-Amateur to earn a 2005 Masters invitation. He made the most of that rare moment, getting up early one morning to play nine holes with Tiger Woods and spending the week in the amateurs-only Crow’s Nest residence in Augusta National’s clubhouse.

Heading out for food the Tuesday night of Masters week, Eaton stumbled upon the cocktail hour for the champions’ dinner. He passed famous golfer after famous golfer in informal conversations until he caught the King’s eye from across the room.

“He had that twinkle in his eye, had a what-are-you-doing-here kind of look on his face,” Eaton recalled, laughing. “Not that he recognized me; I’m just some kid, obviously an amateur at the event or somebody who had made a wrong turn. I told him to have a nice dinner, and he said, ‘It’d be nicer if you could be here, but I’m not sure we can arrange that.’ ”

He couldn’t get a word out at Sunnehanna, but Eaton does have an autographed photo from that meeting. It bears the inscription: “Austin, best wishes, Arnold Palmer.”

“It was the warmth and the feeling that his attention was entirely on you,” said Eaton, now a realtor in Minnesota. “I’ve met plenty of other celebrities and professionals who might have given you a token response or a token moment, and that was not the case with Mr. Palmer.”


“It was Arnie to the great American crowd,” Eaton said, “but I have too much respect for him.”

Goodbye, Mr. Palmer.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.