Lyon: Arnold Palmer was one of us

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Jack Nicklaus points to Arnold Palmer during the 1993 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.

He was one of us. Or at least he made us feel that way. That was his gift, and he knew it and he honored it.

And so, sweating and panting, fiercely loyal and proud of it, we trooped and whooped after him by the thousands, over hill and over dale, honorary members of Arnie's Army.

Has there ever been any athlete with the following approaching anywhere near the magnitude of those faithful legions that adopted Arnold Daniel Palmer, who died Sunday at 87?

And it wasn't a series of one-night stands, either. No, when you enlisted it was for life, for keeps, for generations, for birdie or for bogey.

He'd walk 18 holes and be swept along by waterfalls of applause, and in turn he would reach into that forest of eager outstretched hands, shaking them, grinning that engaging crinkle faced grin, calling out their names.

"I probably know half of them," he used to say, fondly.

And he probably did.

He was a man of the people, and nowhere was that more evident than each spring in a Georgia village on a golf course that must have been carved out of Eden.

Augusta.

The Masters.

"Whoooo, ha, Arnie. Go get 'em!"

And he did. Fifty Masters in a row. Fifty. It was there where the Army was first mustered. He showed up on your TV screen in the 1950s, there in the cherry pink and apple blossom white, down among the azaleas and the dogwood was this bull-strong swashbuckler with a swing that looked like a blacksmith forging horseshoes, and a follow through that jerked to a halt halfway through it, and he would contort his torso in a violent, wrenching slash, and it all went against every instructional guide any of us had ever read.

Somehow, though, he willed the ball into the hole. And here was the best part: He went for it. No matter where he was, he went for it. Lay up? Ha! Not in his vocabulary. Trapped in the middle of a pine grove . . . 230 yards of carry over water . . . hopelessly embedded in a bunker. It didn't matter. He would go for it. It was against all odds, which of course was how we played, imprudent and without caution.

He would squint at the horizon, studying and calibrating, now flicking aside a smoke, now that familiar hitch of the trousers, and now the best part: Hit it hard.

And sometimes the result would be a glorious, kissed-by-an-angel escape that had the Army spilling beer all over themselves, and sometimes it would be a flaming, inglorious disaster, sending the gallery into paroxysms of despair and lamentation.

Either way, he was ours.

And the camera loved him. Arnold Palmer and televised golf were made for each other; they met at a most fortuitous intersection in history, and the real winners were members of the PGA Tour, which found its prize money increasing handsomely.

Or, as Lee Trevino once observed: "The trough just got a lot bigger."

He said, only half-jokingly, that they all ought to kick in a percentage of their heightened winnings to good ol' Arnie, bless his money-making heart.

When the Army first began assembling in the 1950s, the commander was spry of step, almost double-timing after his shots, a man who was locked in a groove and couldn't wait to get to his ball, his swings like impatient whip lashes.

On the greens he would hunch over his putts, pigeon-toed, all wrist, and he was bold, riverboat gambler bold, with the touch of a safe cracker. Or a concert pianist. But as it has a way of doing, time shriveled his nerves, and he was left with the old man's malady, the dreaded yips. The Army, loyal to the end, suffered along with him, without complaint, and he would try mightily to repay them, by making birdie.

And when it came time to go, with the troops assembled one last time, on April 9, 2004, the Friday of the second round of the Masters, the commander played one last round. He shot 84. At the age of 74.

He never lost his zest for the game, nor the passion of the pursuit of that elusive repeating swing. "I'm a dreamer," he said. "I get up in the morning enthusiastically and pick up a golf club with the thought that I can somewhere find that secret to making another cut. That's just an example, but it applies to other things in life, too."

When he was done, when the last putt fell, he succumbed to the emotion of the moment.

"I'm just a sentimental slob," he said.

A lot of us sentimental slobs who had grown old along with him made that last march. He didn't bother to wipe away his tears. As for the rest of us, we just blamed ours on the pollen.

Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist.