It was a couple of days after Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson at Doral and a week before the start of Bay Hill, which is still Arnold Palmer's baby. He was sitting in his Bay Hill office, and the phone calls from the media were stacked up for him like planes waiting to land at Orlando International. Palmer is seventy-five now. He is as much a celebrity, more than forty years after his last major championship, as he ever was. Still the greatest ambassador any sport has ever had. Still the King.
There were all sorts of different story angles on this day. Some people, he said, wanted to talk about Augusta, now that Palmer has retired from playing the Masters. Some wanted to talk about Pinehurst No. 2, the site of this year's U.S. Open, a course where Palmer won the Southern Conference championship for Wake Forest in 1948. "Beat Harvey Ward by a shot," Palmer said.
But the one-stroke victory Palmer really wanted to talk about was Tiger by a stroke over Phil at Doral. And who better to talk about it than Arnie?Out of the millions who jacked up NBC's ratings that day, Palmer knew what he was watching as well as anybody who ever lived.
"There is no way to understand unless you've been in it," Palmer said.
"So you watched?" he was asked.
"Only every shot," he said.
Once, in his youth, before Jack Nicklaus came along, Palmer was Tiger Woods on a Sunday like this, taking on all comers and beating them, going for the green with his driver the way Woods did, making the kind of long birdie putt Woods made on number seventeen, the one that really won the day, even wearing a red golf shirt for the people who lay out the magazine covers. Back in the day, Palmer's late friend from the old Pittsburgh Press, Bob Drum, had a nickname for the guy who could do all those things. Drum used to refer to the top guy as "Bubba."
"And only one guy at a time gets to be Bubba," Drum would say.
Tiger is Bubba now, has been for a while, no matter what the offical World Golf Rankings say. You better believe Arnold Palmer used to be Bubba, all the way until Nicklaus came along. And that is when Palmer began to play the role Mickelson played at Doral: swashbuckling, fan-favorite runner-up. He was still great. The crowds still loved him, and would never stop loving him. But there was somebody greater, even on days when Arnie would hang in there until the end the way Mickelson did until that chip shot from behind eighteen lipped out.
"The whole thing was intriguing to me," Palmer said. "I don't know how many times I've been in situations like that." There was a pause. "Put it this way," he said. "There were a lot."
There was the play where Tiger went for the green with the driver and ended up with a bogey that could have cost him the tournament. Palmer, who made the whole notion of going for the green famous, laughed when I asked him if Tiger had made a mistake.
"You're asking me that?" Palmer said. "I admired him for doing that. I cheered his aggressiveness. I'm sure the way it worked out was frustrating for him. But I watched him go for it and I have to admit to you, I saw myself in that moment. And it made me long for the old days.
"Because that's the way you have to play, in my opinion, when you're trying to win the tournament. That's the chance you have to take in a duel like that. Tiger wasn't just trying to make birdie. He was doing something we hadn't seen from him in a while: applying mental and physical pressure on his opponent at the same time."
"God that was great to watch."
The King at seventy-five. Still swinging away. Still doing television commercials and building golf courses and getting married again and running Bay Hill. (And dying inside with every bad shot he hits at the Champions Skins Game: "I'll be like that as long as I'm alive.") Still treated like a rock star by the galleries.
There is no one like him in sports. People love Jack Nicklaus, but not like they love Arnold. That much has not changed across all the years. Bill Russell doesn't get this in basketball, and neither does Michael Jordan. It is not like this for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron in baseball, or for John Elway or Joe Montana or Jim Brown in football. They are all princes of their sports. Just not the King. No one else ever had a run like his. And no one else ever enjoyed anything the way Arnold Palmer has enjoyed being Arnold Palmer.
But it's even more than that. Nobody has ever accepted and embraced the responsibility of being this kind of sports star the way Palmer has, every single day of his career.
He was asked if he thinks the modern player understands that same responsibility. "I'm sorry you asked me that," Palmer said.
Then he stammered a bit, starting and stopping a couple of times, as if somehow between clubs.
"I'm afraid . . ." he said.
"I'm not sure . . ." he said.
Finally: "I think there are certain players out there who understand that their obligation to this sport doesn't just end with the last good shot they hit. Who understand that they have a responsibility to the game itself, and not just to their own games." He paused again, for effect this time, knowing exactly what he wanted to say next. "Make of that what you will," Palmer said.