It would be naive to suggest that society didn’t have its problems and challenges back in the day when you didn’t pump your own gas, a paid employee did and checked your oil and tire pressure too, as well as giving your windshield the squeegee.
The theory among many is that society just masked problems better in an era when you would call a business or person and actually had a real person answer instead of a machine, so this is not to suggest that an era gone by was any gentler than a generation before or after it.
It wasn’t the “good old days” at all that made life beyond tolerable. If that is or was your state of affairs, it’s those special people who surround you or you meet along the way who contribute to your enhanced quality of life, no matter what year shows on the calendar.
A world in which all news seems to be bad news illuminates such people and, if those outside of golf were paying attention last week, the world was served a heaping helping of civility from yesteryear that never goes out of style, judging by the reaction to it in 2017.
It really doesn’t matter if it’s the 1950s or ‘60s or fifty or 60 years later, grace and civility will always have a place and in fact, be more appreciated than ever in a backdrop of political upheaval, war and famine in a world of relentless advertising, fake news and computer hacking that seems to constantly be flipping the bird your way.
Then, it’s time to celebrate people such as Arnold Palmer and Marilynn Smith, two renowned golfers of immense talent, but not the best of all time. Their skills on the golf course are remembered in awe long after their respective primes, but they weren’t just quality golfers, but quality people.
Sadly, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, we were restricted to “Arnie stories,” many of the same ones we heard back in September when the King left this realm, but the thing about those tales is they never get old.
My own personal Arnie story began in September of 2004, when the King was invited to a special dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Open.
Palmer is, of course, a past champion after winning his first professional championship in 1955 at Toronto’s Weston Golf and Country Club, where one of many Arnie statues marks that occasion.
I had been chatting with Palmer at the 2004 dinner when photographer Bernard Brault strolled by and snapped a shot of us together. Later in the week, he gave me a print, surely a keepsake to be framed and put on the wall.
I hadn’t done that later that fall when I was in St. Augustine, Fla., for the induction of Marlene Streit into the World Golf Hall of Fame. One evening, I was sitting in the hotel lobby watering hole with a group of people, including Sandra Post, when Palmer walked in with former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
Palmer dropped by our table to say hello and I reminded him about the photo Bernard had taken earlier in the year. He said it’s too bad I didn’t have it with me and I mentioned it’s still in my computer bag up in my room.
At that point, I received a very firm order to go and get it, that the King wanted to personally sign it. No argument here.
After hustling up to my room to retrieve it, he asked what I’d like put on it and, jokingly, I said “Ian, thanks for the tips, Arnold Palmer.” I think he was going to do it, but I told him I was just kidding. It now has a place of honour.
Earlier that week in a press conference, one of the writers had asked Palmer about his massive forearms and how they were supposed to have been formed from turning a stubborn steering wheel on a tractor in his formative years in Latrobe, Pa.
The writer asked Palmer if he still had the strength to turn that steering wheel. With a grin, the King clenched a fist and playfully said to the writer he was welcome to come and find out. The writer, by the way, declined Arnie’s invitation.
What stands out the most when hearing a multitude of Arnie stories from over the years is that, while many come from PGA Tour players and the press, so many more come from people normally relegated to behind the ropes in the galleries.
The personal access they had to the King illustrates the importance he placed on the fans and demonstrate the legendary charisma that helped build the game and contribute to charity over the years.
Marilynn Smith, just a few weeks shy of her 88th birthday, was across the country in Phoenix for the LPGA Tour’s Founders Cup while the Arnold Palmer Invitational was going on at Bay Hill. Her profile isn’t as magnified as Palmer’s, but she possesses similar charm and charisma, which is why she’s called Miss Personality.
Like Palmer and Streit, Smith is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who, as legend has it, got into the game after using a cuss word in front of her mom following a tough baseball game.
After having her mouth washed out with soap, it was decided by her parents that she should get into a more ladylike game. Even though she originally looked at golf as a sissy sport, she excelled at it, winning 21 titles, including a couple of majors at the 1963-64 Titleholders Championship.
Arguably, her greatest achievement was joining a group of 13 women who founded the LPGA in 1950. Those founders are celebrated each year at the tournament in Phoenix.
Smith also made her name in public relations for the tour and in broadcasting, but like Palmer, she always had time for fans, one of them being a Canadian youngster who would also win a major.
Post, who won the 1968 LPGA Championship, recalls meeting Smith in 1953 as a five year old and even then, she would constantly wave to the spectators.
That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that continues to this day. Post was in Phoenix on the weekend, honoured as a pioneer of women’s golf by the Founders Cup.
As a youngster, she told Smith that she was going to play on the LPGA Tour and they would write one another throughout the season. To this day, Post credits Smith for taking the time to spend with a kid from Canada.
Over the years, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to chat with Smith, initially for stories I’ve been working on, but when that’s done, there is always a pleasant chat about her friendship with Post, what’s going on in Canada, the LPGA Tour, mutual acquaintances and a variety of other topics.
And each time, I’ve received a handwritten note from Marilynn Smith. Yes, we’re talking through the mail, not e-mail. Give me one of Smith’s notes anytime over a cold e-mail.
Golf was known as a country club game for elites back then and many still have that perception of the game, but Arnold Palmer and Marilynn Smith shatter that image.
It isn’t about the era in which Palmer and Smith played. It’s about their character, their understanding of what it took to grow the game and the need to relate to the people on the other side of the ropes and watching on TV. Both genuinely enjoyed that interaction.
They have shown us the type of people we can all be in a world that can use more like them.