He only dominated his sport for a few years -- from about 1958 to 1964. He won his last major championship in '64, at the young age of 34. And yet, through the strength of his charisma and sincere love for people and his game -- 44 years later he is still referred to as "the king." He humbly says that he does not deserve that title; but rather he is an ambassador for the game.
When he came along, TV was just becoming popular. And he was a perfect fit. Aggressive. Expressive. Interactive. And the nation -- yes, even the world -- fell in love with him. I was about 10 years old when I began following golf. By that time, he had already taken a backseat to Jack Nicklaus in his ability to dominate on the golf course. While Nicklaus would become the greatest golfer ever (Tiger is admittedly closing in), he could never knock "the king" from his throne. Even in losing to Jack, Arnie was still the fans' favorite. And he was my childhood idol. I could not count the number of times I stood over a putt, pretending I was Arnold Palmer putting to win the Masters. I never got to actually watch him win much. But I got to see a man who did much more than that.
Lee Trevino recently shook his head as he thought back on watching Arnie work the crowds. He said no matter how poorly he played or how tired he was, he always made time for the people. Trevino said, "I would have been rushing to the car. But not Arnie. He just loved the people so much."
You could argue who is the most influential athlete in history. Who most impacted his or her particular sport the most? You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who did more than Arnold Palmer.
Today my childhood idol turns 80. I still get a lump in my throat when I see him interviewed or watch reruns of an old match in which he played. He defines integrity, charity and grace. He has been an inspiration for me. Thank you, Mr. Palmer. And happy birthday.