We had come to the Greater Greensboro Open, a small pack of college students, with one thing in mind: see Arnold Palmer.
We would do it stealthily, without tickets, sneaking on the Sedgefield Country Club course. Just slide in, join Arnie’s Army, be inconspicuous among the masses and see the King.
You could see the Army approaching as we waited at a green. There in the distance, in the early morning haze, walking up the fairway, was Palmer.
It’s hard to say which came first, Palmer or the word “charisma.” It’s almost as if the word was created to define him because Arnie surely oozed it.
Having finished up on the hole, Palmer was quickly on to the next tee and waiting to drive. We finessed our way to a good spot near the tee, close to Palmer and his caddie. Then, suddenly, there was a firm hand on the shoulder.
We had been discovered. A GGO marshal said a highway patrolman soon would be escorting us from the golf course. One of us made a plea: please let us see Arnold Palmer drive before we leave.
Arnie heard it. He turned and smiled at the marshal, and at us, and nodded his head, an unspoken command that we could stay and see Arnold Palmer drive.
That tee shot, hit about 40 years ago, split the fairway. Palmer walked off and we soon were escorted off, although we did sneak back on Sedgefield later in the day.
Years later, one of those college kids became a sportswriter, seeing Arnold Palmer many times at Augusta National, at the Masters, where Arnie was always the King. He also saw him have to go through a U.S. Open qualifier in Charlotte, where Palmer’s old friend Dow Finsterwald bitterly said, “Making Arnold Palmer qualify for a U.S. Open is like making the Pope prove he’s Catholic. It should never happen.” No one disagreed.
Palmer, who died Sunday at 87, was as friendly and gracious in interviews as many have said. He had that twinkle in his eye, especially in a group interview, sitting and joking around with the guys. He made you feel comfortable.
The sportswriter later followed Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in their last round together in the Masters. He followed Palmer in his last round at the Masters, in 2004. The sportswriter at times would finger his press badge, remembering another day at Greensboro.
The 1994 U.S. Senior Open was played at Pinehurst No. 2 and Palmer was there, a few weeks after that tearful, emotional day at Oakmont when Palmer said a final goodbye to the U.S. Open. Palmer was at No. 2 to compete, with that eagle-eye look he always had on the course, trying to win. He missed the cut. No one cared.
Ten years later, during that 2004 Masters, Palmer took time to reflect and at times was wistful.
“I am a dreamer,” he said. “I continue to get up in the morning enthusiastically, and go pick up a golf club with the thought I can somewhere find the secret. That’s the way I live and think.”
It’s a great way to live, a great way to think. It makes you want to smile and nod your head. Thanks, Arnie.