In March 1966, when I was 10 years old, I volunteered to work at the 1st Florida Citrus Open golf tournament at Rio Pinar C.C. in Orlando, Florida. I carried a player scoring sign for whichever group I was assigned to each day, and then ran to find “Arnie’s Army” as soon as I finished my work for the day. After he finished his round I was able to catch him on his way from the 18th green to the locker room and ask him for his golf ball. He apologized and said that he had already given it to his caddie, but that if I waited at the exit of the Scorer’s Tent on Sunday he would give me his ball after he finished his round. As a volunteer I had a Florida Citrus Open T-shirt that I had to wear while working, but I always changed into one of my own shirts when I finished each day. On Saturday I had worn checkered shorts and had changed into a plaid shirt before I went to follow him. I guess I looked a bit “different”, and he told me that the one thing I had to do was wear the same outfit on Sunday so that he could recognize me.
Needless to say, I was excited when I got home Saturday evening. Only later would I appreciate how special it was that he stopped and talked with me for a couple of minutes like I was just as important to him as the Director of the tournament, or anyone else that might approach him. My mother tried to prepare me for the reality that he probably wouldn’t remember, and convince me to wear more “proper” attire on Sunday. There was NO WAY I was going on Sunday in anything other than exactly what I had worn on Sunday. On Sunday I followed as a part of Arnie’s Army the same as I had the previous 3 days, only this time I went to the exit of the Scorer’s Tent as he came down the 18th fairway. To my surprise, when I got to the gate the security guard saw me and told me to come with him. I tried to explain that I had to wait at the gate, but he insisted that I had to come with him and opened the gate for me to enter. He took me up to the Scorer’s Tent and then continued on “inside the ropes” to the edge of the green and told me to sit there until the players finished putting out. What was going on?!?! Apparently, after our encounter on Saturday Mr. Palmer had talked to the “powers that be” to make sure that Security at the gate was on the lookout for me with instructions to deliver me the edge of the green when this group arrived. As soon as Mr. Palmer finished putting out and thanking the other players and caddies, he walked directly to me, greeted me, shook my hand, handed me his golf ball and thanked me for considering him as my friend. I’m still amazed I didn’t wet myself! Maybe I did, but just chose to forget it.
It’s a golf ball that doesn’t have any manufacturer’s name on it – just “Arnold Palmer” in script writing similar to his signature. For any that have seen his autograph, it is something he has always taken seriously and given more than a million times. Always legible, he believed that a person should be able to read someone’s autograph an hour after they get it and know who’s signature it is. The ball also has the number 1 on it, as every golf ball has a number printed on it to differentiate balls if two players are playing with the same brand. But the story doesn’t end there….
Later in my life, for many years I worked as a volunteer for the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill C.C., the club that Arnie bought, nurtured and called his home for many years until his death. I live in Switzerland, but would fly to Orlando each March to work at the tournament with my brother. It was common to see him and exchange greetings as we passed each other, but I knew he was busy with the tournament and didn’t want to bother him with a 45 year old story. However, one day my brother and I were in our golf cart beside the 9th fairway when Arnie drove up in his golf cart. He was following the round of his grandson Sam Saunders, who is also a PGA professional. He asked us if we saw where Sam’s drive ended up and we pointed it out that it was on the edge of the fairway. He thanked us (of course).
My brother had been pushing me for a couple of years to recount the story to him, and now was the perfect moment. So I began… “Mr. Palmer, I have to tell you a story of a meeting we had a long time ago. I was 10 years old and asked you for your golf ball on Saturday at the Florida Citrus Open but you told me that you had already given it to your caddie”, and then he interrupted me and said “yes, but I gave it to you the next day – right? I was speechless. Finally, I got out “You remember that?” He just smiled and said “Sure, it was a nice memory for me too!”. A few days later one of the tournament directors asked me if I could assist Security as they needed a couple extra people. My brother and I were in charge of “Evac” (evacuation in case the players and caddies needed to be transported off or back on the course because of lightning), and no rain was forecast for that day. Of course, I agreed to help wherever I was needed. My assignment? It was March 23, 2011 which was Pro-Am Wednesday and Arnie was playing. Another person and I were to be at each green when Arnie’s group finished and make sure the path was clear of fans to the next tee for them throughout the round. A close lifetime friend (and Former Governor and the first Director of the Department of Homeland Security) of Mr. Palmer, Tom Ridge, was driving the golf cart for Arnie. I shared my 45 year old story with Gov. Ridge and he suggested I visit Arnie at his office the next day. On Thursday after I finished my morning checks on the Evac set-up, I went up to Mr. Palmer’s office and talked with Tiffany, his long-time assistant who is also loved by everyone that has had a chance to work with her. Mr. Palmer wasn’t in, but he had left something for me. Tiffany presented me with a Calloway golf ball autographed by Arnie. She explained that he was sorry that he wasn’t able to be there to see me, and sorry that it wasn’t an “Arnold Palmer” golf ball because he was representing Calloway at Bay Hill C.C.. He also apologized that the autograph was not up to his standards, because “it’s just so difficult to autograph a small round object with dimples in it”! You know what? It looked perfect to me!! So 45 years later (almost to the day) Mr. Palmer remembered me an repeated his act of kindness to thank me for my support. The two golf balls sit side-by-side today below a newspaper article that was written about the first event that happened back in 1966. Of course, that article is also autographed by The King!
Mr. Arnold Palmer and my own father were the two most humble gentlemen I have ever known. My Dad and Arnie were quite similar in that they experienced great success in life, but never let that change the person they were inside – always viewing themselves a little less than all others and attributing their great success to the “greater ones” - people like you and me. Mr. Palmer’s legacy has touched thousands of people from the time even before they were born as premature infants to others that found comfort from his kindness in the final hours of their life. He set a standard that we all should try to emulate in our own life as to how we deal with others. Thanks Arnie!