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Back home, Palmer's aura never grows old

The people who gather to watch Arnold Palmer tee off in the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am Wednesday at Quail Hollow Club will not be there to see Arnie slash a drive way out yonder, hitch up his pants the way he used to, and go charging down the fairway frightening bogeys out of his way.

That doesn't happen anymore. He's 81 years old. There's not much left of a golf game that won seven major championships and 61 PGA Tour events and 10 Champions Tour events and earned him a list of accolades a mile long, including Athlete of the Decade in the 1960s.

Doesn't matter. The people won't be at Quail to see how he did it then. They will be there just to see him play again or to see him play for the first time, and to feel his presence. He may have aged, he may have gone decades now without winning, but he's still Arnie, still one of the most beloved figures ever in sports.

This is a rare treat for our town. Palmer doesn't play before a gallery much anymore, but this is almost like a homecoming to him. He once owned a house on the 15th fairway at Quail Hollow, once owned an auto dealership in Charlotte, did some redesign work on the course, has a wealth of friends in the area.

But his embrace of the city goes far beyond that. He was instrumental in bringing the Kemper Open, a PGA Tour event, to Charlotte and when the Kemper left town, he got us the PaineWebber Senior Championship, a Champions Tour event.

And he played in every one of them, even after he could no longer win, partly because he felt a responsibility to them. His name sold tickets.

What was it about Arnie? Man's man, we called him. Once flew around the world, like a character in a storybook. King, we called him. Matinee idol. His caddy called him Par. Gable of golf, he was dubbed back when people knew who Clark Gable was.

It's been written many times, discussed many times, and I'm not sure any of us have quite nailed it down. In one of my attempts, I wrote "...along came the son of a Pennsylvania greenskeeper with his big hands and blacksmith's forearms, with his homemade swing and his slashing style, bringing muscle and daring and sweat to what had been a genteel game. Women loved him, truck drivers saw some of themselves in him, galleries flocked after him, many of them wearing gear that identified them as members of Arnie's Army."

They love him and he loves them back. He always played to them, making eye contact, offering a smile, giving them something to tell their friends about. He signed their autographs until there weren't any more to sign.

When he's done today and he goes into a locker room filled with today's stars, he'll be the star.

Welcome home, Arnie.

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