The Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship is the pinnacle honor bestowed at the Musial Awards. It recognizes an iconic sports figure who exemplifies sportsmanship and whose career is defined by the class, dignity, generosity, excellence, civility and integrity synonymous with Stan the Man.
A tremendous privilege for the Musial Awards, this year’s recipient is Arnold Palmer. The golf legend shares much in common with Stan: Western Pennsylvania roots, standing among the greatest athletes, and a decency that made them beloved ambassadors of their respective sports. One of the most popular and accessible sports figures, Palmer built an army of admirers through his down-to-earth, personable approach. His success on the course – seven major championships including four Masters titles – is matched by his kindness and philanthropic commitment. Palmer’s generosity has touched many across the nation.
Among those who experienced Palmer’s graciousness firsthand is longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Dan O’Neill. We leave it to Dan – and a column he wrote earlier this year – to capture why “The King” is so deserving of the ultimate award for sportsmanship named for “The Man.”
An Audience with the King
By Dan O’Neill
Published on March 17, 2015 and reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The old Bogeyman doesn’t usually endorse television, not since “The Gong Show” went off the air.
But if you have access to Golf Channel, you might be interested in viewing a 60-minute special Tuesday, “Arnie & Me.”
The program will show at 9 p.m., preceded by the replay at 6 p.m. of the “Arnie” documentary that first aired last April.
The “Arnie & Me” segment includes some 40 remembrances of Palmer. The stories come from celebrities like NFL quarterback Peyton Manning and supermodel Kate Upton. Most important, they also come from non-celebrities, connections that truly make Palmer “The King.”
One story it will not include took place Aug. 11, 1989. The occasion was the PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes Golf Club, just northwest of Chicago. The Post-Dispatch sent a reporter who had never covered a golf championship. There were people living in Yakutsk who knew more about the game.
But when Arnold Palmer went out the first day of the championship and fired a 68, it became a “Sportswriting For Dummies” moment. He was tied for third, two shots off the lead, suggesting he could win a major championship and complete the career Grand Slam at age 59.
A little voice told the uninitiated writer it was something to pay attention to. Even he had heard of Arnold Palmer.
The next morning, he was inside the ropes, tracking Palmer. It was like being introduced to baseball by following Babe Ruth around the bases. The galleries were thick at every stop. The “Army” was out in full force.
As he walked each fairway, as he hit every shot, Palmer was encouraged with loud ovations. Each time, he raised his arm and waved in acknowledgment. Jaime Garcia would have needed surgery just to get through the front nine.
It was a long round of golf, with many stops and starts. It was mid-August heat and humidity, temperature that eventually reached the 90s. Palmer was just two months shy of his 60th birthday. He had not won a major in 25 years (1964), not won a PGA Tour event since 1973.
Palmer was supposed to be ceremonial, not serious.
When he birdied No. 4 to go to 5 under, the grounds exploded. But fatigue, and reality, were in pursuit. Palmer’s gait became more deliberate as the day wore on. His shirt was soaked, his shoulders sagged. He three-putted No. 11, then double-bogeyed 13. There were no more birdies forthcoming, and he settled for a 74.
It was good enough to make the cut — his last at a major. But it took him out of contention.
As Palmer finished, the demands were just beginning. He made his way off the course, signing autographs at seemingly every step. Then came several television interviews, followed by a lengthy session with the print media. The correspondent continued to linger, hoping for a moment that seemed less and less likely.
Palmer was transported to the clubhouse, and the reporter hustled after. When he got there, he entered the locker room and saw Palmer. Arnie sat in front of his locker, hunched over, spent and for the first time that day, momentarily alone. It was now or never.
The hesitant reporter cleared space in his constricting throat and went for it:
“Mr. Palmer, forgive me for asking, but I wondered if it would be possible to get in a couple of questions with you?”
Twisting off one of his shoes, the weary Palmer looked up, paused for a moment and gave a response the writer will never forget:
“Sure, son. If I could have just a minute here to change my shirt and shoes … we’ll go upstairs and find somewhere more comfortable to talk.”
It wasn’t a line. It wasn’t Mark McGwire saying he would be right back, then sneaking out a back door of the clubhouse. It was genuine.
Palmer changed shoes, put on a dry shirt and led the way upstairs to an empty couch. He ordered a soft drink and one for the scribe and said, “OK, this is better.”
Still disbelieving, the interviewer felt compelled to offer, “I won’t take too much of your time.”
“No, no,” Palmer reassured him. “This is more comfortable. Now we can just talk. Take as much time as you need.”
After playing 18 holes of major championship golf on a 90-degree day, after going through an additional hour and 15 minutes of signing autographs and conducting interviews, Arnold Palmer — the biggest name in golf — sat and talked to the cub reporter for nearly 40 minutes.
It was an experience that could never happen in the present sports environment. It was a level of accessibility and authenticity that simply doesn’t materialize today. It’s why Arnold Palmer was the best thing that ever happened to golf.
It was Arnie and me.