“Memory of an Icon – Arnold and Me” by Steven Wright

By |  September 26, 2016

[In light of the passing of golf pro Arnold Palmer, we’d like to republish this article by columnist Steven Wright, from one of PMP‘s sister publications: Golfdom.]
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MEMORY OF AN ICON – ARNOLD & ME
by Steven Wright

To say I had a life with Arnold Palmer would be quite an exaggeration. But to say Arnie never had anything to do with my life would be not be true, either.

My first experience with Mr. Palmer came when I was 14 years old. My best friend, Luke, and I somehow talked our moms into dropping us off at the 1971 Florida Citrus Open. This was one of the Florida Tour swings played at Rio Pinar Country Club. We were there all day following Mr. Palmer.

Rio Pinar was not what you would call a fan-friendly course, so we each had a periscope. For those who have never held one, it’s an 18-inch box with an angled mirror at the top and bottom. These were necessary tools back in the day.

That day, Palmer and Julius Boros were in a playoff. More golf, more walking, more periscoping. Mr. Palmer won and the crowd went crazy. Luke and I stuck around for an autograph. I’d like to say he looked me right in the eye and said something profound. Nah. Just the signature. I learned a lesson about personal hygiene that day.

Fast forward a dozen-plus years. I’m at my second superintendent position, Suntree Country Club in Melbourne, Fla. Suntree CC was an original Senior Tour event, one of the first three in 1983. Mr. Palmer was coming to play my course. The week went by in a blur. It was my first of five Senior Tour events there, but the next thing I knew the club had negotiated a deal for Mr. Palmer’s golf course design company to design Suntree’s next 18 holes. For the next year or so we built nine holes at a time and I got to see Mr. Palmer and his designers quite a bit. He also played in the event, flying his helicopter in each day.

Opening day for the new holes arrived, and I was asked to play golf with Mr. Palmer. Quite the treat… all day with Arnie. He held my newborn daughter, met my mom — a huge fan — and my wife. Somehow I played OK that day. The course looked good and Arnie was grateful. That was the day I learned I was in the right profession.

A couple of years later, and another Arnie moment, this time a job interview with Mr. Palmer in his Bay Hill office. The open job was at his newest club in Orlando, Isleworth CC. At the time, Isleworth had the only bentgrass greens in central Florida.

So I am in Arnie’s office. My friend Jim Ellison was Mr. Palmer’s agronomy guy and had arranged the interview. It was finally down to two, Joel Jackson — a fellow Golfdom columnist — and me.

Arnie’s office was awesome, full of photos, trophies and golf books. Arnie arrived with a few pieces of luggage, his pilot, Winnie, and two big dogs. It was organized chaos. When we shook hands I noticed how large and strong this man’s hands were. It was not the first time shaking his hand, but it stirred memories from past greetings.

The interview was awkward. He seemed rushed to get to Latrobe, and I might have talked too much about Isleworth and bentgrass. Joel Jackson got the job that day or shortly thereafter. What did I get? I got to sit one-on-one with the King and talk golf, grass and business. Even though it didn’t work out that day, I learned that there is a plan, and sometimes you don’t have anything to say about it.

There were a couple of other brief meetings with Mr. Palmer. He came to a benefit tournament while I was working at Gary Player’s Alaqua Country Club. And then again at many PGA events at Bay Hill, where the Citrus Open later was played, and at Central Florida GCSA’s Crowfoot Open. He always was extremely friendly.

A couple of years ago the Golf Channel broadcast a three-part series on Arnie. I was moved by the production, and realized how much of an impact this man has had on the game of golf. I had a need to tell him, so I wrote him a letter on Palm Beach GCSA letterhead expressing our (superintendents/vendor members) gratitude for his efforts through the years. It’s safe to say many of us owe our careers to him. His popularity spurred the growth of this game for decades, making golf a career option for many a turfhead.

Arnie wrote me back and thanked me. Wow. Needless to say, the letter is a prized possession.

“To whom much is given, much will be required.” We are held responsible for what we have. If we are blessed with talent, wealth, knowledge and time, it’s expected that we will use these well to glorify God and benefit others.

Arnold Palmer tried his hardest to live this out. One man can make a difference.

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