Golfers, friends, fans fill Latrobe with love for Arnold Palmer
October 4, 2016 11:53 PM
Vince Gill performs at the Arnold Palmer memorial Tuesday at Saint Vincent Basilica in Latrobe.
Arnold Palmer's jet flies over Saint Vincent Basilica before the start of Tuesday's memorial service for the golf great.
Jack Nicklaus arrives at Saint Vincent Basilica before the start of the public memorial Tuesday for Arnold Palmer.
Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, with the Ryder Cup in hand, arrive at Saint Vincent Basilica before the start of the public memorial Tuesday for Arnold Palmer.
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Arnold Palmer's Callaway golf bag and his portrait are displayed on the alter Tuesday during the memorial service for the gold legend at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
An exterior view of Saint Vincent Basilica in Latrobe, where a memorial service is being held today for Arnold Palmer.
The memorial service for Arnold Palmer begins at 11 a.m. today at St. Vincent College.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They came from all over, carrying memories and heavy hearts, even the Ryder Cup.
Past players such as Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange and Peter Jacobsen. Current players such as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and William McGirt.
Golfing TV personality David Feherty was there. So was Masters chairman Billy Payne, former LPGA Tour star and friend Nancy Lopez and former Pirates manager Jim Leyland. Most came in private jets, an estimated 35 of them were parked across Route 30 at the regional airport that bears his name.
Longtime friend and former LPGA Tour commissioner Charlie Mechem told a packed audience at the Saint Vincent College basilica in Latrobe he wanted the two-hour memorial service on Tuesday to be a celebration of Arnold Palmer’s life, to remember the way he would walk up the fairway, hitching his pants, smiling and flashing his trademark “thumbs-up” sign. And it was.
Everyone shared stories. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said Palmer “unleashed an incredible love for the game.” Former LPGA Tour star Annika Sorenstam said that even though Palmer was known as the King, “he made everyone feel like royalty.” Television broadcaster Jim Nantz talked how “the camera loved Arnold Palmer” and, near the end of his heartfelt and impassioned eulogy, requested a standing ovation to recreate Palmer’s final walk up the 18th fairway at the Masters in 2004.
But it was left to Jack Nicklaus, his longtime friend and rival, to capture what everyone was feeling on the day Western Pennsylvania said good bye to Latrobe’s native son.
“You don’t lose a friend of 60 years without feeling a tremendous loss,” Nicklaus said, his voice breaking on several occasions.
And so it was on a sun-splashed day in Westmoreland County that the elite of the golf world congregated with an adoring public to remember Palmer as more than a seven-time major champion and 62-time winner on the PGA Tour.
Monitors were set up in several locations on campus for those who couldn’t get into the basilica to watch the service. Two giant screens were set up on Chuck Noll Field, where a handful of spectators sat in the sun to pay homage to the son of a groundskeeper who passed away on Sept. 25, at the age of 87.
Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, who presided over the service, said he was told by Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, a PGA Tour player, “Don’t turn anyone away. My grandfather wouldn’t want anyone turned away.”
Palmer always had time for everyone — “He had an incredible ability to make everyone feel good,” Finchem said — but, first and foremost, he always had time for his family. Mr. Saunders said his grandfather always took his phone calls, no matter what he was doing.
“I called him one time and said what are you doing?” Saunders said. “He said, ‘I’m with the president.’
“I said, president of what? He said, ‘Of the United States.’ I said why did you answer the phone? He said, ‘Because I wanted to talk to you.’ ”
Palmer was friends with former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower — he surprised the King by showing up at his house for his 37th birthday — and George H.W. Bush and was requested for visits by “heads of state and prime ministers,” said Peter Dawson, former chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.
Nantz recalled the time he was invited to the White House in 2007 for a visit by Queen Elizabeth II and sat at a table with Palmer and the queen. The queen was escorted to the table by President George W. Bush, who whispered to Nantz, “Keep the conversation going.”
At one point, the queen turned to Palmer and asked him how many golfers he thinks he has played with in his lifetime. Palmer, who was hard of hearing, did not hear the question. When he did not answer and merely shrugged his shoulders, the queen asked, “100,000 people?” Nantz leaned in to Palmer and repeated the question.
Palmer thrust out his thumb and gestured upward to let the queen know the number was higher. So she asked, “500,000?”
Imitating Palmer, Nantz said he gave her the thumbs-up sign again, this time holding it still to approve the number.
“So there was the answer — Arnold Palmer played golf with 500,000 people,” Nantz said, drawing laughs from family members and friends.
The day began with Palmer’s co-pilot, Pete Luster, flying his jet and doing passes over the Saint Vincent College campus as guests from the world of golf arrived. They were greeted outside the basilica with hugs and tears by Cori Britt, vice-president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises who seemingly did everything for Palmer.
The day ended with bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” and Luster again piloting Palmer’s plane high into a bright blue sky — something Palmer loved doing for 55 years as a licensed pilot. Nicklaus recalled flying with Palmer for one of the first times to a tournament in Seagraves, Texas, and how the plane was being bounced around on a windy day “like a piece of paper in a tornado.”
Nicklaus said he looked over at Palmer and “he was laughing. It was like he was sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster, enjoying every moment.”
Singer Vince Gill, a long-time Palmer friend, sang twice, ending the service with Carole King’s song, “You’ve Got a Friend.”
“This man was my favorite person,” Gill said of Palmer. “Not my favorite golfer, my favorite person I ever met.”
“He was an everyday man,” Nicklaus said. “He was everyone’s hero. He appealed to everyone.”
Golf flourished in America because of Palmer. Mr. Finchem said golfers in the U.S. rose from 5 million to 30 million and courses grew from 5,000 to 15,000 from the time Palmer won his first tournament in 1955 to when he won his final PGA Tour event at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973. In that time he became the first player to win the Masters four times. The only player to ever win more green jackets was Nicklaus, with six.
“The steps he took to change the landscape, along with Jack Nicklaus, led us to what is today the PGA Tour,” Finchem said.
Nantz noted Palmer was 43½ when he won his final PGA Tour event, which was also 43½ years from the day he died.
Sorestam, who won 72 times on the LPGA Tour, including 10 majors, was recently re-designing a course in Lake Elmo, Minn., with Palmer known as “The King and the Queen.” But her most cherished experience with Palmer is that her son, William, was born nine weeks premature and might not have survived if it wasn’t for the care she received at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Fla.
“Arnold inspired millions with his kindness and generosity,” said Sorenstam. “It’s time for us to carry on what you started. We love you.”
No player had a longer and more impactful relationship with Palmer than Mr. Nicklaus, golf’s all-time leader with 18 major championships. He won his first in 1962 at Oakmont Country Club, when he was 22, beating Palmer, the hometown favorite, in an 18-hole playoff. That victory signaled the changing of the guard from a King to a Bear, even though Nicklaus knew golf would always have just one hero.
“Arnold came along when golf needed him most,” Nicklaus said. “When TV first embraced the sport of golf, they had a swashbuckling hero as the game’s face. He made the recovery shot a form of art, and people adored it.”
Then Nicklaus added, “Today I’m a proud soldier of Arnie’s Army.”
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