September 10, 2009

The Day I Met The Once and Future King

Tempest Fugit: Latin for "Time is Fleeting."

It seems like the day before yesterday - Arnold Palmer storming through golf fields with ease, with an army of followers cheering his every move. He was The King, The Man, and The Guy Who Made TV Golf What It Is.

And today, he is 80. Happy Birthday, Mr. Palmer.

The Day I Met Mr. Palmer -- A Day This Kid Golfer Has Never Forgotten

When I was a very young kid, perhaps five years old, I got to enjoy watching Arnold Palmer is his prime. Little as I was, I didn't see much, mainly legs of adults straining against gallery ropes for a glimpse of the world's most famous golfer as he strolled through. What I remember the most is the palpable excitement, followed by the instant hush as he prepared to swing, and that different sound his driver made as it crashed through a golf ball. Palmer's swing sounded like power. Afterward, I saw a white dot against a clear blue Florida sky, blasted into the heavens almost as if it were one of the rockets that my grandfather and my father launched at their jobs at Kennedy Space Center.

As soon as the ball disappeared, there was a stampede to follow Palmer down the fairway, and being little, it was almost as if I were in a human version of the Running of the Bulls in Pamploma, Spain. My grandfather held my hand tightly to keep me safe, and we would follow after the crowd thinned. We did this shot after shot, roar after roar, mile after mile. On young legs, 18 holes is a very long way. By the end of the day, I was exhausted.

Then the best part: as we walked towards our car, my grandfather, a man infamous for his shortcuts, ducked through the ropes and away we went besides the clubhouse. No one seemed to notice, and if they did, they didn't seem to mind. We turned a corner, and there he was: the man himself. Arnold Palmer.

My grandfather was a senior manager at Kennedy Space Center, a fellow who the nightly news interviewed from time to time to get the latest on the Gemini Project and some insight into the upcoming Apollo Project that was going to take men to the moon. During his career, he met often with politicians, celebrities and reporters regularly, so meeting a man like Mr. Palmer was something he could handle with ease. Thing was, he seemed to know The King, at least well enough to say "good to see you again, Arnold. How's Winnie?" From there, they made a bit of small talk. Palmer asked about the space program, my grandfather asked Arnie about his game. Then Palmer noticed me standing there quietly.

(pictured: on the right, my grandfather mans his instrument panel during Alan Shepard's flight into space in the Mercury Control Room at Cape Canaveral.)

"Who's this?" Palmer asked my Papa, looking at me.

My grandfather beamed. "This is young Charles," he said. "He loves to play golf."

"Nice to meet you, young man," Palmer said to me, smiling. I was dumbstruck. The man I saw most weekends on television was me! "Do you like to golf?" he asked."

"Yes...yes sir..."I stammered.

"He wants to be just like you," my grandfather interjected.

Palmer smiled, looked at me and said, "well, you look like a fine young man. Just keep on practicing and maybe you will one day, Charles."

"Yes...yes sir..." I replied.

As soon as I got home that afternoon, I grabbed my Spalding kid's set out to the yard without hardly a word to my parents. I was headed out to the yard, to practice, just like I had been told by Arnold Palmer.

It may not have worked out for me to ever be the golfer that Arnold Palmer was, but that day, it all seemed possible. And today, when I look at a blank scorecard on the first tee, it still seems possible. I just need to keep practicing...


  1. Great story about Palmer !

    How about that - your grandfather was a hero of mine, even though I didn't know his name and don't remember any of his interviews. I was a HUGE NASA nut as a kid. NASA was much bigger to me than Arnold Palmer or any golfer.

  2. Great story. I have a very similar Brooks Robinson story.

    Also, that's a fabulous picture of the King. Don't think I have ever seen it...


Have something to say? We'd love to hear it.