(KMSP) - This past weekend the golfing world gathered outside Orlando, Florida for the annual Bayhill Classic. The venue, home to the original most famous golfer of all time, Arnold Palmer. For years he transformed the sport into a must see event followed by his fans known as "Arnie's Army." The nickname began in the 1950's when U.S. Soldiers were called in to hold the ropes that kept the huge crowds clear at The Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.
One of my prized possessions is a painting by St. Paul native Leroy Neiman titled "Arnie in the Rain" from the Masters in 1973.
This weekend "Arnie's Army" paid tribute to, as most of the current pros would call him, Mr. Palmer who passed at the age of 87 on September 25, 2016. His name synonymous with the game he played. So famous was this man who grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania that one day an American was visiting the Pope at the Vatican. When he told the Pope he was from Latrobe the Pope quickly answered, "Arnold Palmer!"
Here in Minnesota we were fortunate to see Arnie and his Army nearly every year at the Senior Tour event in Blaine. More recently he was here last August appearing with Women's Golfing Legend Annika Sorenstam, announcing plans to re-design the old Tartan Park course in Lake Elmo into the Royal Golf Club. This weekend Sorenstam posted a picture on Twitter from that day. We could see then Arnie looked frail, but most had no idea he'd be gone in just over a month.
Golf for me began when I was 9 years old. My older brother took me to caddie at Minneapolis Golf Club in St. Louis Park. I had no idea what I was doing so he just said, "Do what I tell you to." Back then, if you did a good job you might get $4 for carrying a bag for 4 hours -18 holes. But on the ninth tee box my youth and inexperience gave way to what my mom would call "The call of nature." I had to go, if you know what I mean, and I had no idea that in a pinch golfers would find a secluded tree to relieve themselves. So there I stood until I couldn't hold it any more. Yes, I wet my pants. The man I was caddying for came over to me as I was in tears, handed me a $20 bill and told me to go home. That was 4-times the going rate for a caddie! For years my older brothers would tease me about doing it again so I could get $20!
So imagine how that soggy pants kid must have felt eventually getting the chance to interview the one and only Arnold Palmer. My first chance to chat with "The King" was at the 1982 U.S Senior Open at Hazletine National Golf Club in Chaska. He saw me standing green side with my microphone and came right over. I asked a question about players dropping out of the event because the course was too tough and with his classic smile, he looked right back at me and said, "I hope most of them pull out. I'll still be here and it won't bother me a bit." And we all had a good laugh.
And come this summer he will "still be here" when his re-design opens up at the Royal Golf Club in Lake Elmo. Can't wait to play there and have a half iced tea-half lemonade right after - a can of "Arnie Palmer!"