“Arnold?” the priest’s eyes questioned.
You were supposed to choose a saint for your Confirmation name, and it was obvious Arnold wasn’t ringing any saintly bells.
“As in Palmer,” I said.
The priest nodded and placed the communion host in my mouth. In 1971, even priests knew who Arnold Palmer was — and maybe, like me, thought Arnie was capable of miracles.
My dad and I were part of Arnie’s Army. We watched him on our big Zenith, waiting – praying — for his heroic “Charge!” His arms and face were bronzed by a lot of golf course sun; he had Paul Newman hair and a shy smile. When he strode down the fairway he would occasionally hitch his pants up over his snaky hips, sometimes puffing no-hands on a cigarette. Arnie didn’t swing at a golf ball — he lashed at it, following it with an angry twist of his club like a guy with a divining stick searching hysterically for water. His putting stroke was more snapshot than sweet spot: knees knocked, arms locked, he willed the ball into the hole — and grimaced like a shot man if it lipped out.
His nemesis was Jack Nicklaus, younger by a decade, a puffy blond crew-cutter with a picture-perfect, powerful golf swing. I hated Jack (Fat Jack, I called him, right to the TV’s face); he was unflappable flab and not enough flair. And worse, he was too good; he beat Arnie too many Sundays.
Forty years later, I see all too clearly whom I was rooting for on all those Sundays when I thought I was cheering on Arnie: I was rooting for my father. Like Arnie, my father’s golf swing was all will and no grace; picking up the game at 28, he developed a tight, rapid, slashy swing that one of his friends dubbed “Zorro.” And like Arnie, my dad was the gritty underdog to the likes of Dr. Eddie O’Keefe and Art Hemker, smooth-swingers born with silver golf clubs in their hands. When I caddied for my father, I got a rare close-up of both his incredible courage and his incessant self-doubt. More often than not, he was out of his league, in over his head — or so some part of him felt — and all he could do was grip the driver even tighter, pop it down the middle, steel will it onto the green, and cross-hand rap it, somehow, into the hole.
I was there on the fifteenth green, the flag in my hand, when his thirty-foot birdie putt dropped, closing out Dr. O’Keefe and moving my father into the finals of the Mohawk Club Championship. I was sixteen years old, and I was so proud of my father I felt tears swell up and take over my eyes. I wanted to hug him, but all I could do was slap him on the back again and again.
A decade ago now, I watched Arnold Palmer walk up the eighteenth fairway at Augusta for his fiftieth and last time. In his mid-seventies, his legs hurting, the “Charge” all discharged, he walked like an old man. And for the first time I sensed a sadness he has carried with him all these years. That’s another thing Arnie and my dad shared, this deep life-long sadness — that, and an old warrior’s will to ignore that sadness, and that fear, and all that self-doubt, and to find a way, somehow, to prevail.
And when I write that, I feel proud all over again, and my own sadness, and I wish my father were still here so we could talk about that brilliant birdie day back in 1975, his courage, and maybe his self-doubt, and mine, and I could finally hug him, really hug him, for all of that.
Photo: Getty Images