Most of us turn down more golf than we accept. It's the nature of the game. If we said "yes" to every invitation, there would be no time left for living. But one invite I couldn't accept fast enough came when I answered my phone one afternoon, and a sweet-sounding woman with a Pennsylvania accent said, "Oh, hi, Steve, it's Gina in Mr. Palmer's office. He has an opening on Tuesday and was wondering if you'd like to join him for golf."
Mr. Palmer was Arnold Palmer. Gina was his office manager in Latrobe.
I had my flight booked to Pittsburgh before hanging up the phone.
As if the prospect of playing with Arnold Palmer were not intimidating enough, to get to the first tee from Pittsburgh you have to turn your rental car to the right at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, make a quick left onto Arnold Palmer Drive, and take another right into the entrance of Arnold Palmer's Latrobe Country Club where you can go downstairs to the Palmer Grill, order an Arnold Palmer, and wait for the man himself to show up and buy you lunch.
I would have been a nervous wreck had he not done exactly what I knew he would do: slap me on the back as if I were a long, lost prodigal son, introduce me to everyone in the room, and treat me like a prince the entire day.
"Let's go to the locker room and I'll get you set up with a towel and a locker," he said. It was classic Arnie. He is the most influential golf figure of the last 60 years, a man every pro in the world owes a huge debt; the man who first referred to the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship as the "professional majors," and a man who, through his very presence, reinvigorated the sagging British to its rightful state as the game's oldest and most storied championship. And yet, that afternoon, before our round, he wanted to make sure my hamburger was cooked the way I liked it, and that I had a locker and a towel.
As awed as I was by his kindness, I wasn't surprised.
I first met Arnold Palmer (if meet is the right word) at the 1974 Masters when, as a husky 12-year-old wearing an ill-fitting Munsingwear shirt and a bad haircut, I snuck past the Pinkertons and into the Augusta National clubhouse during one of Georgia's ubiquitous pop-up showers. And there he was: Arnie, his hip propped up on the chair railing, oozing the kind of cool that would have made Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen blink.
Our eyes met, and I froze. Then, glancing down at my "Grounds Only" badge, he said "You know you shouldn't be in here with that. If they see you, they might ask you to leave the golf course." He was anything but scolding. It was like an older friend giving me advice for a first date, a "just between you and me" secret delivered with a twinkle in his eye and a knowing half smile.
He put his arm around me and escorted me out to an awning where I could stay dry without violating my Patron Agreement, and said, "You going to be okay here?" I assured him that I would be. Then I pulled out a soggy pairings sheet and said, "May I have your autograph?"
"Of course," he said as if I'd asked him to join me at the Ritz for dinner. After signing the one dry side of the paper, he was gone, waltzing back inside with all the flair of Paul Newman on an Oscar red carpet.
Thirty-eight years ago, and I remember every second of it, not because of what he said or did - anybody could have escorted a trespassing kid out of the clubhouse and signed a pairing sheet - but for how he said it, and the way he made me feel. Every second that I spent with him that day, and in the days that followed when, as an adult, I collaborated with him on two books, visited him at Bay Hill many times, and sat through countless interviews, he made me and everyone else he touched feel special.
That is why Arnold is, and will remain, the King.
Guy Kinnings, who runs the European, African, and Middle Eastern golf divisions of IMG, told me, "I encourage all our new clients to go listen to him speak. When they come out of the speech, I ask them, 'How was it?' To a man, they always say, 'It was great. He was fantastic.' So, then I'll ask, 'What did he talk about?' And they can't remember, because it doesn't matter. He never really says much. It's how he says it that makes all the difference. Everyone who hears him speak leaves thinking they have a friend in Arnold Palmer."
He is the model, not just of what a professional athlete should be, but of what a professional should be in every category of life. This week, his personal hospitality will be on display once more as the tour returns to Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He will be there, not as a figurehead, but as a gracious host. You can find him having fruit and oatmeal in the dining room of the lodge, patrolling the range and the putting green, and sitting down with the broadcast crew to talk about the tournament and the state of the game. There is a little more stoop to his posture these days, and the words don't flow as freely as they did in years past. But the twinkle and the smile remain, as does his unfailing gift for making everyone in his presence feel special.
His game is no longer on display, and the staff and family go out of their way to make his life easier. He won't be changing the brake shoes on the golf carts as he did the Tuesday before the 1992 Bay Hill Invitational - "Sorry I can't shake your hand, I don't want to get grease on you," he told me that day. But you can rest assured of one thing: if any of the players this week need a towel, Mr. Palmer will go out of his way to make sure they have one.
Steve Eubanks is a prolific writer, authoring 30 books including An Afternoon with Arnie and Augusta: Home of the Masters. Eubanks is a former college golfer and PGA Professional. You can follow him on Twitter at @jseubanks