Over the past century, there have been athletes who were so incredibly dominant in their respective sports that they gained worldwide recognition.
In North America, we tend to think of our top athletes as being world renowned, but the truth is very few reach this pinnacle.
The mere mention of their names conjures images taken in various stages of competing that undeniably brought exposure of that sport to people around the world. Often, that was exposure of a sport not well known in other countries.
For example, even in countries where soccer had little profile, everyone who saw Pele’s incredible footwork and “bicycle kick” knew instinctively he was different.
From the moment eyes were widened by the majestic physique of Ali, people were in awe, but when they saw the flurry and speed of his combinations and then the “Ali Shuffle,’ they knew he was the greatest.
When Bolt wins, he appears to be slowing down at the tape. Is he so fast he can end a race at 90 metres?
Babe Ruth was a pitcher, fielded and hit. His stardom coincided with a time that baseball was falling out of favor. All Ruth did is resurrect a popularity that has lasted close to 100 years.
Nadia Comaneci’s 10s? How is that even possible?
Then we saw Phelps, Tiger, M.J. and Federer, all world-known champions who people identify with their respective sports, devour all records as if it was child’s play.
There is one athlete who transcended his sport, not only as a famous athlete, but as a sports figure of mythical proportions.
In my opinion, Arnold Palmer is the most famous athlete in the world. Millions of people tell golf jokes simply because they are funny. Many of these people have never touched a club and yet the joke centres on incidents involving a golfer.
Inevitably, the story gains credibility when it contains the name Arnold Palmer. Everyone has heard of Arnold Palmer and the very mention of his name brings a correlation to the game of golf. His name is synonymous with golf around the world.
Arnie has played golf with presidents, corporate executives, amateurs, professionals, men, women, rich people and poor people. He could relate emotionally and intellectually with every one of them.
Golf wasn’t his only gift. He could connect with people.
The sport of golf has either been in times of tremendous popularity or average popularity. It has never suffered a complete “crash.” When Palmer came onto the scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, golf was enjoying moderate success based on the high level of skill displayed by: Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, who were his predecessors.
Arnie’s flare for the dramatic, his flamboyance, his aggressive style of play and his love for his fans were a perfect partner for TV. The two of them raced hand-in-hand through a time of growth and popularity never seen in the world of golf.
TV loved Arnie and Arnie loved TV!
Arnold Palmer passed away last month. Following the funeral, a small plane glided softly above the Latrobe Golf Club in Pennsylvania dispensing his ashes onto the lush green fairways. A rainbow appeared. The beautiful white craft flew into it and disappeared.
Arnie was gone.
But is he?
His legacy of playing in the British Open to complete his career as a champion lives on. His connection with Augusta National, his efforts to help the founding of the PGA Tour Champions and his numerous victories serve to remind us of his golfing abilities.
The Children’s Hospital near Orlando, founded and built on Palmer’s initiative, is one of the finest anywhere. Arnold Palmer touched golfers, non-golfers and people of all walks of life and his memory will live on for a very long time.
Golf meant everything to him and one of the ways the golf industry can honour him would be to accept his ability to attract new golfers into the game and continue reaching out just as he did.
Arnold Palmer did more to expand the player base of golf than any other human being. People flocked to see Bobby Jones on the course and to hear him speak publicly. They lined the fairways to hear the crack of an iron struck by Ben Hogan.
Both of these men attracted new golfers into the game. In Palmer’s case, people felt when he looked toward the crowd and waved, he was waving at each one of them individually. He touched them in a way no one has before or since.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how to grow the game and extend the wonderful benefits we enjoy to others.
There are many programs to encourage golfers to experience the things we love about it, but real growth will only come from people who don’t play golf.
So here is my proposal. Let’s have an Arnold Palmer Day. It would be held at every golf course in the world on Sept 25th, the anniversary of Arnie’s death.
On that day every equipment manufacturer, golf course supplier, golf association, professional tour, course owner and every single person who plays golf would come together as joining forces.
The goal would be to coordinate a day to expose golf to non-golfers with lessons, a few holes of golf, videos of tournaments, photos of people having fun, etc. The invitees would be friends of golfers, with every golfer bringing one non-golfer to their course on Arnold Palmer Day.
Along with the golf would be the opportunity to purchase an umbrella-shaped Arnold Palmer lapel pin with proceeds going to charity.
Very few people in the world do not know about Arnold Palmer. No other person grew the game like Arnold Palmer did, so in honour of what he did for every golfer in the world, why not continue the legacy?
I’ll see you on Sept 25th; Arnold Palmer Day and look forward to meeting your non-golfing friend.