Name a greater person that you’ve ever known, or ever known of, than Arnold Palmer. I can’t. I can certainly think of dozens of people who may have been as famous, as rich or richer, or more powerful and more successful, but I can’t think of anyone who has combined all those things, and been as great a human being as Arnold Palmer.
I met Arnold many times, though he certainly wouldn’t have remembered me. But I could describe down to the second what transpired in each meeting. Of all the famous people I’ve met, and there have been many, he was the most inspiring, most impressive, warmest, and most genuine.
I had just written these words above, it’s Sunday night and I’m watching the tributes on the Golf Channel, and I’ve just received two emails from friends urging me to re-tell the well-worn story about Arnold and my late brother Peter, who died seven years ago, at age 64.
Okay, for what I guess will be the last time…
My brothers and I were complete golf nuts as kids, and Arnold Palmer was by far our favourite player. With Pete, the middle brother, it was unadulterated hero worship, and he was often teased about it by his pals.
On Christmas Eve, 1967, Pete and a few of the boys had been out at a couple of Christmas parties and had had a few Labatt 50s. They were enjoying an extra few in our basement shortly before 1:00am, when one of the lads said, “hey Pete, why don’t you give your buddy Arnie a call and wish him Merry Christmas?!” Pete took another sip and said “why –hic– not?”
He called “Information” in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and amazingly, was given Arnie’s phone number. (1967 was a very different time.) In what became the most mortifyingly embarrassing – yet most memorable – moment of his life, Pete called the number, with his friends listening on other extensions throughout the house. Arnold answered. Pete’s voice was cracking with fear, but they ended up having a 12-minute conversation… as Arnie mentioned that he and his wife, Winnie, were busy wrapping presents for their daughters. Arnold had never met Peter and had no idea who he was, although he undoubtedly realized that he had a tipsy young fan on the other end of the line. Still, he chatted with Pete like an old friend, and ended the conversation with “Merry Christmas, Peter!”
Fast forward 22 years. Pete had met Arnie a couple of times by then, but never brought up the phone call; he was too embarrassed. But as it happened, in 1988, I was hired to do some videotaping with Arnold for the old Cadillac Golf Classic, at Glen Abbey. We were running behind on our schedule, and Arnie was being rushed to get to the airport, but I asked him if he would do something really special for me.
I had made up a cue card, and he read it, as I told him the story of the phone call. To be honest, he didn’t remember Pete’s call from 1967, but he looked at the cue card and said “sure”. Then he looked straight at the camera and ad-libbed from the cue card, “Hi, I’m Arnold Palmer, and I’d like to wish Peter, Wendy, Sarah and Jocelyn Deeks a very Merry Christmas… and Peter, call me… but don’t make it on Christmas Eve, okay?”
I gave the videotape to my brother on Christmas Eve that year. He screamed with shock and delight. I truly thought he was going to have a heart attack. But he didn’t, and his videotape became mildly famous within the Deeks network of friends and acquaintances over the years.
Fast forward to 2009. Pete had become a member of the R&A several years earlier, and happened to be in St. Andrews that August. He was having a beer with a friend, Ron Read, an executive from the USGA at the Dunvegan Hotel, steps from the 18th green. He told Ron the story, and Ron urged him to write it up, and send it with the video, to the USGA to be uploaded onto a special website they had created to pay tribute to Arnie on his 80th birthday on September 10th. Pete did… and his submission promptly became the most-viewed item on that site, with more than two million visitors… more than Tiger’s tribute, and more than President Bush’s.
Golf Digest then reprinted the story about Pete’s call, and the video, giving it even more awareness than it probably ever deserved. Pete died, of cancer, about six weeks after all the attention. It was fitting that his somewhat dubious connection with his all-time hero had come full circle, and had given him so much satisfaction at the end of his life.
But what made the story so interesting, so memorable, to so many people… is the fact that Arnold was so human, so nice, so warm, so generous of his time and his fame, that he would treat a tipsy college kid with respect and patience on Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake… and would have fun with the experience many years later. He knew exactly what he was doing when he made that videotape: just making someone’s day, as he did for millions of people on thousands of other days, all his life.
There simply was no one greater than Arnold Palmer.