I was so blessed, thanks to my dad and mom to have the opportunity to grow up in a lovely little get away place named Hilton Head Island. So many interesting and wonderful opportunities for us little explorers on a remote island get away. Growing up here in some ways im sure was like small town rural life (no traffic lights, 1 grocery store, excitement when a movie theater opened) However, to me it was a huge, natural playground. Exploring Sea Pines Plantation with all its beauty and wonders with endless bike paths (a 10 year olds freeway system) to travel wherever the imagination took us. There were miles of empty beaches with hard packed sand wide enough at low tide that the walk from the dunes to the water could exhast you. I learned to play golf on those beaches with my then best buddy, Allen Peterson. We could make our own course on the beach (true links golf ) and dig a hole in the sand as our cup, and stick washed up sea reed sticks in our beach holes to act as our target flags, no bunting attached. Allen and I would swing away the cut down hickory golf sticks that dad had given my brother and I to learn with. Parents could just let us HHI kids go with our assurance that we would be home for dinner. For me, the greatest place on earth in my elementary and middle school years was Harbor Town Golf Links. A special place with many wonderful memories for me. This is the place where I learned the value of a dollar, and the place that I met my lifelong hero (only topped by my parents) Arnold Palmer. Sea Pines, along with Harbor Town Marina, and the golf course, was the vision of Sea Pines Plantation founder Charles Fraser. Pete Dye with the help of Jack Nicklaus created a lovely course through the pines of Hilton Head, with Calibogue Sound bordering the finishing 2 holes. Topping off the 18th hole was the lighthouse that is still the most commonly recognized symbol of Hilton Head Island. This visionary course became the the home for a PGA tournament that is affectionately referred to as “The Heritage” by all the old timers. And it is fitting that the first Heritage, was won by no other than the man affectionately referred to as “Arnie”
Harbor Town Golf links was the home of great paying jobs. Big money for little squirts like me. There were numerous kids that had the opportunity to work at Harbor Town picking up driving range balls as the sun set and the Hilton Head breeze faded with the light. The golf course did not have a range ball picker machine, nor did it need one as range use was sparse a lot of the year. So us little kids of Sea Pines could ride our bikes to the links after school and make a few dollars in the evening picking up range balls. With a tube that would hold about 30 balls, we would shag the balls that accumulated each day, being paid by the barrel. The size of the barrel and its associated fullness would determine the riches we were rewarded each night. I specifically remember a trash can full was worth $4.00, that you would split with our working partner. It would take on average hour and half or 2 hours to get the range clean of the balls. This was the true american dream. (A dream that I am sure is against some sort of regulation today and could not occur) If you showed up to work on your scheduled day, worked responsibly and did as told, the money just flowed. We could make 3 or 4 dollars a night. My mom opened savings account for my working brother and myself. We learned about spending, savings and even taxes. My first tax return dates back to when I was 12. Thanks to my terrible love of soda and candy, the golf course vending machines got some of my money back each day. Life was good and I really enjoyed hanging out at the golf course. This one special picture that I have included, occurred one day while hanging out at Harbor Town. The other kid in picture is Thornton Withers. This was a normal day at the golf course, and just so happened an employee said Arnold Palmer was on the golf course and was playing the 9th hole. So I went up to the green, with Thornton and watched Mr. Palmer play, no spectators, nobody else around except the local paper photographer. The photographer asked Mr Palmer for a picture. Mr Palmer basically waved at Thornton and I to come over as he insisted we be in the picture. The picture posted made the local paper, and our parents tracked down the original with the help of the local paper. As stated Harbor Town, was home to the Heritage Golf Classic, so a few months after this picture was taken Arnold Palmer was back on the Island for the 2nd Annual Heritage. He was defending his championship as he had won the first Heritage. The golf tournament in its earlier days was great for viewing golfers. There were no galleries of people. You could get one on one with most golfers. I found the nerve to approach Mr. Palmer with this picture. It was that moment in time that he became a lifelong hero. I dont remember what he said, but I remember he talked to me for a long time. He acted like he really wanted to know more about me. That is the way he was. From that point on, I would follow him for 18 holes every day of every tournament. I always had work at the Heritage but had to work around his tee times. I would work my way around so that I could always have front row viewing, mainly so he could view me.. He would often come over and put his hand on my shoulder, while waiting on a tee box. He would smile, stare or just wink to let me know he knew I was there. Of course I was always trying to get in his way, following him everywhere, even to the parking lot at the end of the days round. One all time highlight for me was during the pro am event one year at the Heritage, he brought me inside the ropes on the 9th hole which usually had a pretty good gallery and was right next to the club house. (I have included pictures from this occurrence, taken by a reporter) We were walking down the fairway together. He handed me a golf club along the way, and was checking out my golf grip. His arm on my shoulder next to the green or any other time I could get near Mr. Palmer, made me feel like the most special kid on the planet. Another time, i purposely found myself in his path, was after he finished the 18th hole on a tournament day. This time he took me into the Press room with him and I sat right next to him as he answered media questions. He just was so special, because he knew how to make others feel special. There are other stories that involved him and our family, mostly unbelievable, so I want add to what I have said other than to make a comment about the pleasure of knowing Mrs Winnie Palmer. She was such a kind person. Each year she would spot me, (as I prowled around in Mr Palmer’s Army) remember my name, and then reintroduce me to Mr Palmer and any family or friends that she might be with. She made me feel like a part of their family. I followed him each year he came to the Heritage and I know that as I grew into an older teenager seeing me each year was also a visual of his own age more often met with the 36 hole missed cut.,Mr Palmer was still coming to the Heritage when I entered the USAF at the age of 22 . While I never became much better than average golfer, he would ask me about my flying in large part due to his love of flying. I was so thrilled to at least have that in common with my idol. Probably the biggest regret in my life is not sending him a letter later in my life to tell him about the wonderful life and family that I am blessed to have. Knowing the man that he is, he would have at least enjoyed hearing about them and how much his wink and warm look meant to this little fat kid.
Truly the most amazing thing about Arnold Palmer, is and was, that there are thousands, no, check that, millions of people, around the world that could tell a similar story of how Arnold Palmer made them feel so special for at least a small moment in their life. I am certainly shedding a few tears for the loss of this great man. He was a true role model and a legend among legends, a wonderful man that will certainly be missed because he was truly loved by all that have even whispered his named.