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Palmer is man of people


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2000

LUTZ -- It's like seeing Babe Ruth forever on a ballfield or a graying, immortal Johnny Unitas throwing passes still.

Seventy is now Arnold Palmer's age, not his golf score, but in the millenniums of sports, no athlete has competed for so long with such unsubsiding magnetism.

"I guess those people consider me one of them -- and I am," Palmer said. "I act as though we're old friends -- and we are. Looking into crowds, I see faces I recognize from years ago. I know what many of them did for a living."

Respect, exceeded only by love.

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Today, Saturday and Sunday, the Palmer magic plays the GTE Classic theater. Arnie's Army faithfully marching into a fresh century. Championships are no longer in his reach, but the charm still is fiery.

Powerful if aging hands, an enduring golf grip papa Deacon Palmer taught him so long ago, still launch 250-yard drives. Grinding on, in search of one more birdie. One more Arnie fist pump. One more little conquest.

It's been 27 years since Palmer won on the PGA Tour. His last major title was the 1964 Masters. Among the seniors, he hasn't ruled a tournament since 1988.

Sixteen consecutive times, The King has missed the 36-hole cut at Augusta. Still, the silver gem is cheered as if a fifth green jacket were reachable.

Admire the spirit.

Last year, Palmer was a struggling bogeyman on Georgian turf where his legend was born. Shooting 83-78. Mark Calcavecchia, ironically a fellow cut misser, popped off about Arnold, saying it was time the aging colossus quit playing the Masters.

"My only comment," Palmer said Thursday, "is that I received a nice, warm letter from Calc saying he was sorry about the remarks." Come April, he will be teeing it up again. A few months ago, Arnold became the only former Masters winner to be granted official Augusta National Club membership.

He won there in 1958-60-62-64.

"What bothers me most about lousy scores I shoot these days," Palmer said, "is that a 76 or 80 isn't as tough on me as it used to be. Sure, high scores still chew at me, but it's no longer a major issue."

Scores are near-irrelevant.

He wishes they weren't.

From his Army, no matter Arnie's numbers, the whines are few. "That's another thing," he said. "When I'm not doing well and suggest that I maybe shouldn't play any longer, the people get upset. They're amazing. They cheer almost everything."

Like on Thursday, when Palmer was finishing his pro-am round. Smacking a shot into water, then doing it again. Finally, on a 70-yard approach to the 18th green, his shot bounded well beyond the putting surface. Thousands applauded. Palmer smiled, waved and burned a little. He went and had two beers.

Cheers ringing in ears.

Palmer's aura is wider than any fairway at St. Andrews or Pebble Beach. He is a man's man, but also a lady's man. Everybody's guy. A textbook red-white-and-blue success saga, born of hard-working Pennsylvania roots.

A pedal-to-the-metal American hero who comfortably interacts with the world's power people and generously embraces rank-and-file followers with a famous smile, endearing little winks and unsubsiding competitiveness.

Palmer's life, so chocked with gold and glamor, has known its pain. Arnold beat prostate cancer, then used his clout in encouraging 50-and-over men to get checkups. A daughter, Amy, recovered from breast cancer. Then, saddest of all, Palmer lost his wife of 45 years, Winnie, to cancer three months ago.

I had to ask ...

At the mention of Winnie's death, the dancing Palmer eyes watered with memories. "It's really tough," he said, the voice quivering. Arnie would say one thing more about Winnie, then move on: "I turn the light out every night over her picture."

Tiger Woods may become a 10-time Masters champ, plus bagging 20 other major championships, while grossing $10-billion, but some things Arnold Palmer has known are out of the golden kid's reach.

"Things are different now," said the King. "My career developed when golfers weren't making much more money than folks in their galleries. It was easier to identify with athletes.

"I've never seen anybody with talent as explosive as Tiger's. He's still getting better, which has to scare his competitors. But, yes, there are some wonderful things I have known that Tiger Woods won't ever get the chance to experience."

Like being one of them.

Palmer's bonding with the public is unique. Golf is his game, his professional bedrock, but Arnold's biggest talent may be salesmanship. Being himself. Using a mighty name, a product of winning those four Masters as well as one U.S. Open and two British Opens, as a catapult to entrepreneurial grandeur. Plugging in a strong, natural personality that has allowed Palmer's prime to endure.

Mark McCormack, the mightiest of sports agents, triggered his global empire with a one-jock stable, Palmer in the early '60s. Even now, in his grandfatherly years, Arnold earns more than $8-million a year. Including relatively few dollars in tournament prize money.

Only the Palmer tournament scores are slowing. In partnership with architect Ed Seay, he has built 200-plus golf courses. Seventeen in Japan. Arnold will soon fly to India to dedicate a new one, then to Portugal.

Speaking of aviation, it's another Arnie passion. He took pilot lessons in 1961, then bought his first plane, a prop-driven Aero Commander. When new toys came along, Palmer always went shopping. His latest is a Citation 10 jet.

"These days, I'm a lot more in control in the pilot's chair than on the course," he said. "I stay current. Through the years, I have logged more than 17,000 hours in the left seat (captain)." In 1976, he broke an around-the-globe record for an executive jet, going from Denver to Denver aboard a Lear 35 in 57 hours, 25 minutes, 42 seconds.

Always, the adventuresome zeal.

But there are less flamboyant times, like when Palmer gets together with two daughters. Amy lives near him in Orlando and Peggy's home is Durham, N.C. There are six grandkids.

"You've got to treasure every moment, especially at this age," Arnold said. "By necessity, we've had to think about death in recent weeks. I think about it a lot. It makes it even more meaningful every time you put your arms around your children and also theirs."

All the world hugs him.

Babe Ruth plays on.

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