The 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational, the first held since Arnold Palmer’s passing in September of 2016, will be one filled with tributes, memories, and stories of the great Arnold Palmer. A winner of 92 professional tournaments, Mr. Palmer was admired by golfers worldwide for the kindness he showed to the public and for the “common man” feel he brought to the game.
Since his passing, many have shared their favorite “Arnold” stories with family and friends. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear an Arnold story or two, you’re sure to find the common theme of how Mr. Palmer made them feel like they were the stars, not him. He had a very special gift to really connect with people and my story is no different.
Meeting Arnold Palmer
It was 1998 in Augusta, Georgia at the Masters. To immediately get rid of any airs, I was stationed at Fort Gordon, in Augusta, and was working security at the Masters as a part-time job during the tournament. Myself, and a friend from Fort Gordon, were assigned to the practice range and the member’s parking lot, right next to the clubhouse. It was a pretty sweet gig and one in which you get to see all the professionals move in and out of the clubhouse. However, as you quickly find out, remaining vigilant and standing on your feet for hours on end, rapidly becomes a job.
As the Masters week progresses, the crowds get larger at Augusta. By Wednesday, and the Par 3 contest, the mostly reverent patrons begin to morph into less reverent and more “mashed potatoes” stereotypes. Although foolishness is less tolerated at Augusta than other tour events, there is still a priority on allowing golf fans to be fans and letting patience with the crowds rule the day.
By Thursday, I was tired, my feet were sore, but the tournament was in full swing and the excitement around the grounds of Augusta had an almost energy unto itself. The morning was overcast with only nature’s silence around the clubhouse, and it was then, that I (really we) met Mr. Palmer.
We saw Mr. Palmer exit the clubhouse and begin to walk toward us. He beelined a path straight for me, and for a panicked second, I wondered if I had done something wrong. Mr. Palmer came up and extended his hand in greeting and said, “Hello, I’m Arnold Palmer. It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
It’s at this point, when you meet someone famous – who obviously doesn’t have to explain who they are, or introduce themselves – that your inside voice goes crazy, but somehow, you extend your hand and shake his confidently and answer, “I’m Keith Cook. It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Palmer.”
Mr. Palmer then extended his hand and offered the same greeting and introduction to my friend, Tom, who was just as taken aback. I think we were both still wondering if he wanted something, or if we had done something wrong. And you know what? He did want something.
“I wanted to take a moment and thank both of you for your service to our country,” he said.
You see, Mr. Palmer found out (probably well before 1998) that many Fort Gordon military personnel work at the tournament every year for a little extra money. He told us he liked to take the time, when he could, to thank those who served. Even though we weren’t the first, or I’m sure the last, we felt very special. The kind of special many people describe when they talk about meeting Arnold Palmer.
We thanked him for his kind words and then caught him off guard a little, because we knew he had served in the Coast Guard. You could tell he was surprised when we thanked him for his service as well, but he just smiled and said, “Thank you, it was a long time ago, but thank you.”
We chatted with Mr. Palmer for a few more minutes. Silly conversations about the tournament, the weather, and about how we loved golf, too. The entire time both of us trying to seem cool, but knowing we were actually in the presence of coolness itself.
As Mr. Palmer walked away, and then back into the clubhouse, I remembered what it felt like to shake his hand, how genuine he was, and how special and important he made us both feel in that moment.
Mr. Palmer will be sorely missed this year, at his tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational. However, something tells me the void will be filled – even if just a little – by the stories of how Mr. Palmer made others feel so special.
BIO: Keith Cook has been a writer and contributing editor at thelocalgolfer.com since 2013. Follow Keith @KeithCookWriter on Facebook or @_KeithCook on Twitter.
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