Arnie was somewhat of a legend in our household growing up - and not because of his storied golf career but because he was the man that my grandmother went to prom with. The story was one surrounded by a quality that I can not describe any other way than magic. Our family revered Arnie with a certain fascination which made him both an icon in character and sport. The respect my dad had for Arnie automatically attracted me to his story.
Someone said at his service in Latrobe last week that what was so special about Arnie was the way he made people feel about themselves. I have never heard a truer statement. I remember feeling a personal connection with this albiet perfect stranger and approaching golf camp as a 5th grader with wonderment of a distant connection with my hero. After other students started a rumor that Arnie would be making an appearance I carried all memorabilia possible and every fresh sharpie in my household to camp - only to be sorely embarassed and disappointed by his absence.
I'll never forget the day my grandmother arranged for Arnie to call me on the phone. I don't think any oxygen was reaching my brain because I couldn't breathe as he calmly and affectionately had a conversation with me. Arnie even wrote me a letter once, a prized possession I will cherish forever. Every trip to Latrobe to visit my entire extended family was an opportunity to be closer to somewhere Arnie cherished.
Although I never played any golf (or any sport requiring any coordination for that matter), I was drawn to the sport because of this man who was distantly entwined in my family history. I believed we shared a special place, Latrobe, a secret oasis of memories that only local residents of the small town can understand. After my grandmother passed away my fascination grew even stronger. When I went to college at the University of South Carolina I was presented with an opportunity to work the 2014 Master's Tournament. And I jumped for it. Solely for the possibility of meeting Arnold Palmer.
I somehow landed a coveted role in the Clubhouse as one of three hostesses in the Trophy Room - the receiving area for the clubhouse dining room where three meals a day are served exclusively to green jackets, players, and their families. Here I was, an irremarkable girl from Baltimore, working 14 hour days, sleeping in the linen closet of a house I shared with 16 other college student tournament employees - all for a chance to be in the same place as the legend. My peers would mock me as I skipped lunch and bathroom breaks to stay in the dining room on the off chance that Arnie would arrive. I was devastated as the week was winding down and I hadn't see him. I decided to give my shaking legs a break and reward myself with a donut in the downstairs kitchen one morning. Returning to my post, my teammates looked at me with disdain "You just missed him." Tears welled, and I resigned to the fact that I probably would not see a glimpse of Arnold Palmer.
On the final day of the tournament we worked 18 hours. All of my teammates took their regular break as we flipped the dining room after lunch in preparation for dinner. The doors to the dining room were closed, leaving me in the mahogany lounge, alone. And that was when it happened. Through the glass windows to my left I saw Arnie ambling up the walk. I dashed to open the front doors for him and was greeted with the biggest smile I could've ever imagined and a friendly handshake. "Hi Arnie, my name is Rachel, Lea Fox was my grandmother. Do you remember her?" Arnie looked at me without missing a beat "Of course I remember." - This I now know is something he says to everyone, he knows how to make everyone feel special. I led him and his manager into the dining room and we sat in three big green armchairs for about an hour, talking, as he ate an afternoon snack. I wouldn't trade that magical hour with him talking about my grandmother for anything in the world.
Arnie meant more to me than just golf. He was a piece of my history. A piece of my family even if he never knew it. He had that impact on people. He begged a fascination because of the depth of his character not just the strength of his game. I credit Arnie for teaching me to believe in something, something much greater than myself. The world said goodbye to a legendary golfer, I said goodbye to the boy who took my grandma to prom.