CHASKA, Minn. — William McGirt took his wife and infant son to Arnold Palmer’s office at Bay Hill, wanting nothing more than a photo.
Palmer, as usual, gave him so much more.
Any worries McGirt had about imposing on the King were put to rest as quickly as it took Palmer to reach over and take his son, Mac, out of his arms for the photo.
“We take the picture and I figure he’ll hand him back and wait for us to get out of his office,” McGirt said Monday. “No. We take the picture and he puts Mac on his desk and sits there playing with him. Mac knocked everything off his desk and he was like, ‘It’s OK.’ He was having fun with him. He was the best at making you feel welcome. He made you feel like you’ve known him for 30 years.”
This was the very essence of Palmer, who died Sunday and left a gaping hole in the world of golf.
This was the personal touch.
Three months before his death, Palmer eased into the chair in his Pennsylvania office and started in on a life’s work that never seemed to end. On the desk next to him was a stack of photos, tournament flags and other memorabilia that fans from across the country had sent him, asking for an autograph.
Some days he would sign for 10 minutes, other days an hour, depending on his energy level.
But he signed.
The walls outside his office are covered with personal letters from presidents dating to Dwight D. Eisenhower and other leaders. Palmer knew them all, and the letters showed how much they cherished their relationship with him.
Palmer, however, treated the unknown fans with as much consideration.
He made them feel important.
Phil Mickelson learned that lesson over the years. The most important Palmer imparted: Never walk past anybody.
“He always made eye contact. He always acknowledged they were there,” Mickelson said. “We all try, but we never live up to his standard. He made the difficult look easy.”
His signature is among the most famous in sport. Everyone can read it, each letter just as legible as the “A” and the “P.” One year in his office at Bay Hill, Palmer reached for a black pen and a blank sheet of paper to show how he learned to write. He even remembered the name of his teacher in the first grade, Rita Taylor, and the “Palmer Method of Writing” that was scrawled on the blackboard.
That’s how kids in the 1930s learned to write. The method wasn’t named after Palmer. He just perfected it.
Moving his large hand in a circular motion until there was a large, black dot on the paper, the King showed that it was about using the arm, not the wrist, as he moved down the line to write his name. No telling how often that signature has been written. As Rocco Mediate said, Palmer autographs don’t sell for much because there are probably 8 billion of them.
And nothing is more personal than a letter.
Gavin Hall, who plays for the Texas Longhorns, was 14 when a letter arrived in the mail from the Bay Hill Invitational in 2009. It was from Palmer, whom he had never met and never did. Hall had played in the prestigious Monroe Invitational in upstate New York that year. Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, also was in the field. Maybe that’s why he wrote.
“I was pleased to hear of your recent accomplishments on the golf course,” the letter begins. It goes on to encourage Hall to stay devoted to the game without dismissing his education.
Hall was in a minor state of shock.
“There was no way it was Arnold Palmer. How in the heck would he know what I did?” Hall said Monday. “It was amazing. To this day, it’s the best letter I ever received. Can you believe the amount of people he has reached? How many lives? I never met him, and he still wrote that.”
Hall, who qualified for the 2013 U.S. Open as an 18-year-old, was one of the younger recipients. But he wasn’t alone.
Each week, Palmer wrote letters to every player who won on tours large and small. Russell Knox was one of them. He won his first Web.com Tour event five years ago outside San Francisco, and a few weeks later received a letter from the King.
“I called my dad and said: ‘You’re not going to believe this. Arnold Palmer wrote me a letter,'” Knox said. “He didn’t believe me.”
Palmer kept a tight schedule three years ago. He took time for a visitor before two meetings and lunch with supermodel Kate Upton.
He paused before signing a letter to David Frost, who had won on the Champions Tour, and said, “He’s playing pretty good.” The next letter was to Kevin Streelman, who had won at Innisbrook the week before. Palmer watched the back nine on television and liked what he saw.
On the way out the door, an assistant told him that Japanese photographers wanted to take his picture. They were outside his door and when Palmer saw them, he rattled off his best Japanese greeting. His voice was animated. His smile put everyone at ease. The words probably didn’t come out the right way. It didn’t matter.
They all laughed together and Palmer wrapped his arms around one of them and gave her a big hug.
Just like they were old friends.