There are many crowns in golf, but there’s only one king.
On September 25, 2016 the world said goodbye to the most iconic man to ever pick up a set of clubs. In a career that spanned over half a century, Arnold Palmer revolutionized the sport, taking it from something that aristocrats played to a game of the people, and for the people. With a cocktail of irresistible charm and playing ability (three parts charm and one part playing ability, to be exact) Arnold won majors and tournaments, but most importantly he opened golf to the world.
Arnold’s passing was tough for me. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. It was late, and I was getting ready for bed. I was cleaning my clubs after a particularly grueling round. As I wiped and scrubbed the dirt and fairway off my irons my phone buzzed with a text. Who’s texting me at this hour? I thought. It was my brother, my first and best golf buddy. It was a link to an article reporting the Mr. Palmer’s passing. I’m too young to have watched Arnold play, and my knowledge of him comes from reading articles and conversations, but I knew that I just experienced history. The King was dead.
Homage to the King
Last weekend I had the great fortune to play one of the finest courses in Arnold’s Kingdom, Running Y Ranch Resort in Klamath Falls, Oregon. It truly is a jewel in the crown of Arnold Palmer golf course design, and the best place for me to receive my basic training to join his army.
As my group walked off the practice green and onto the first tee, I heard my partner say, “Are you kidding me?” Confused, I turned to see who he was talking to, and what provoked such a comment.
“C’mon, let’s man up,” said one of our group as he stood at the tee box, grinning like he just aced a hole. Instead of white, blue, or black, these markers had paintings of Arnold’s signature umbrella. This guy wanted to play from the tips, the Palmer tees, to go head-to-head with the King’s course. Measuring out at 7,138 yards, I thought to myself, There’s confidence, there’s cocky, and there’s insanity. This certainly was the latter.
Of course, I obliged him.
with a few penalties for trying to go for the green from a difficult lie, and at other
times encouraging us, with a bit of Palmer-intervention to give a stray ball a favorable bounce or a fortunate ricochet off a tree. I have no doubt that he was there with us, probably enjoying the audacity of four amateur golfers trying to conquer his course.
True to the intent of Palmer design, and the capable hands of Greg Morton, long-time course superintendent, the course was in impeccable condition. The fairways were manicured to the highest quality, offering bounces that were impressive even in the wet climate of November in Southern Oregon. After weeks of heavy rain, as Southern Oregon is doomed to get this time of year, I plugged a ball only once. All but a few fairways were flanked by trees throughout the course, offering isolation that only served to improve our relationship with the course, the game, and the King. I often forgot that I was playing golf (or trying to) because I was frequently lost in taking pictures of the area. Every hole was a framable work of art. The greens were fabulous. Blazingly fast, they offered challenges to everyone. Jaren Mack, the head pro, had warned us they were running a little fast. He was conservative in his estimate.
Off the course were some of the finest amenities that I’ve ever encountered. A well-stocked pro-shop selling everything from logo balls to name brand clothing waited for us in the early morning mist. There were only the highest quality brands to choose from, Nike, Under Armor, FootJoy. Everything about the pro-shop screamed high caliber and professional. The highlight was the restaurant and lodge, serving some of the best tasting food I’ve had the pleasure to eat. If you find yourself at the lodge, I recommend the Elk Chili. I hated finishing it, it was so good. My partner had the Mac and Cheese. He said it was delicious. The dining room overlooks the 10th fairway, a gorgeous scene, subtly reminding you that you’re never far from the game.
Everything in the previous paragraphs has been said before, so I know I’m not breaking any new ground, but if you will allow me, I’d like to ditch the typical course spotlight format and just freestyle a little bit about what playing the King’s course meant to me, a young golfer in 2016.
To those who watched him in his prime, Arnold Palmer was a great golfer. As I previously mentioned, I didn’t get to witness those years. By the time I was born, his professional career was winding down. He hadn’t won a major in 28 years, or a senior major in 7. So, to me, Arnold Palmer isn’t a golfer, he’s an idea, a state of enlightenment about the game. He’s the embodiment of the idea that golf is meant to be a stress relieving game, not a stress inducing one. That golf is not about shaving strokes off of your handicap, but simply enjoying spending time with friends you’ve known for ten years or ten minutes. It’s the belief that we are all united as golfers, and any time we let animosity get in the way, we’re sabotaging ourselves. We’re robbing ourselves of the moment. That’s what Arnold Palmer means to me. Play the game because you love the game, not because you want to win. Play a round sometime, and just golf. It won’t kill you. Forget the scorecard, forget the par, and forget the lost balls. Just exist in the moment with nothing but you and the game. That’s what the day was for us–nirvana. Yes, we kept score, to see how we stood up to the course, but the score didn’t matter, really. We played in the moment, with Arnie alongside.
Earlier I described Running Y as a golf course. How foolish of me. To those who have never played it, it’s a golf course. But to those of us who have walked its fairways and read its greens, it’s more than just a golf course. It’s a temple, designed by the first golf bodhisattva.
Let me explain. In the Buddhist religion, a bodhisattva (bo-dih-´saht-vuh) is one who refrains from entering enlightenment to aid others in their journey. And that’s exactly what Arnold Palmer did. With his 7 majors and 5 senior major wins, he could have ridden off into the Florida sunset and still be considered one of golf’s greatest golfers. But he didn’t. He became the figurehead of our sport. He designed courses, traveled the world, and continued to popularize our game long after his competition days were over. Arnold got to the state of enlightenment and said, “You know what, I’m not quite done.” He used the rest of his life to enlighten us all about what golf is.
At the end of the 18th hole at Running Y, a beautifully difficult par 4, we didn’t walk off with a handicap, we walked off enlightened.
Thanks, your Highness.