Monday, September 26, 2016

Long live the King

Golf and celebrity have never really shared the same orbit. There is too much interior life to the game for that, too much that by necessity must be closed and purposeful and separate from the world -- a distance both physically and metaphorically represented by the rope that keeps the galleries away at PGA Tour events.

On this side of the rope, humanity. On the other side, golf. Or, Golf.

Arnold Palmer is the man who took down the rope.

The King went to his reward yesterday at 87, and no more impactful presence in any sport ever breathed air. Tiger Woods might have been a transcendent talent, moving the needle the way no other golfer of his time can. But Arnie changed the very relationship of the game to the larger world.

He was not, first of all, a child of privilege. The son of a groundskeeper, he grew up in the steel mill town of Latrobe, Pa., on the wrong side of that rope.  Arnie was the guy who came out of the larger world to pierce Golf's bubble, a working-class stiff who violated all of the bubble's protocols. He chain-smoked. His shirttail was an incorrigible delinquent, refusing to stay tucked in. And he attacked the golf ball with a smoldering rage and a swing that, at the top, made him look like George Armstrong Custer twirling a cavalry sword around his head as he led a charge.

No wonder his fans became known as Arnie's Army.

He opened the door and they came pouring through, and golf had never seen the like of them. That decorous rope could not contain their joy, their working-class insistence that golf was a sport, dammit, not opera or the symphony or some prim cotillion. And so they brought a football fan's yahoo mentality to it all, bursting that Golf-ish bubble for good.

Those lucky enough to chronicle Palmer's good years will tell you to this day there has never been anything like the roar Arnie's Army unleashed when their man ran in one of those knock-kneed road maps. You could be on the other side of the course, they all say, and know instantly that it was Arnie  who had just done something big.

His flair for the dramatic charge, and his connection to the masses -- he would reach across that rope and sign autographs forever, it seemed -- made him golf's first true celebrity. And, maybe, frankly, its only one. That he came along at roughly the same time television came along sealed that deal; because of what he did in front of those cameras and how he did it, he became the sort of star often produced outside of golf, but rarely within it.

Turn on your TV, and there was Arnie, selling cars or motor oil or life insurance or Xarelto. Turn it on later, and there he was with Bob Hope or Johnny Carson or even the President of the United States.

HIs celebrity was a product of his game and the uniquely raw joy with which he played it, but it was also a product of his willingness to give so much of himself to so many.  Tiger Woods, a more traditional adherent to the separateness of Golf, became a draw simply because of the bloodless efficiency of his game. Arnie was a celebrity because of who he was. One inspired merely awe; the other, love.

Maybe one day we'll see another like him. But if you've got a comfy chair at hand, you might want to use it. The wait could be a long one.

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