NEW YORK (AFP) - A tearful Jack Nicklaus led the tributes to Arnold Palmer on Tuesday (Oct 4) as the golfing world gathered to bid farewell to the trailblazing icon who died last month at age 87.
A who’s who of golf descended on the Saint Vincent Basilica in Palmer’s Pennsylvania hometown of Latrobe at a memorial service to celebrate the life of the man known to millions simply as “The King.”
Nicklaus was among friends and loved ones who addressed the congregation in the three-hour service, sharing memories of a more than 50-year friendship which began in the late 1950s.
The 76-year-old 18-time major winner choked back tears during an emotional tribute, describing Palmer as a golfer “who epitomised charisma.”
“He was an everyday man, everyone’s hero,” Nicklaus said. “Arnold managed to remove the ‘I’ from icon and instead let the world share in his greatness.
“Golf gave so much to Arnold but he gave back so much more. He appealed to everyone. He was the king of our sport, and he always will be.”
Nicklaus addressed an audience containing some of the biggest names of golf spanning different eras, from Palmer contemporaries such as Lee Trevino through to Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els to the current crop of stars.
Palmer’s close friend Charlie Mechem opened the tributes to the golf legend, whose worldwide legion of followers was affectionately known as “Arnie’s Army.”
“This is the elite battalion of Arnie’s Army, as it should be,” Mechem said.
US Ryder Cup stars Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson were also among the crowd.
Fowler and Watson arrived clutching the Ryder Cup, which the USA wrested back from Europe last weekend after three consecutive defeats.
“It’s pretty cool to be able to bring it here today,” Fowler told an interviewer on the Golf Channel television network shortly before the service got under way.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem admitted he had found it hard to put his sadness at Palmer’s passing to one side.
“I got the same instructions, which were to make this an uplifting celebration, but I can tell you it’s really, really hard to do that because we come here with heavy hearts,” Finchem said.
“When we talk about Arnold’s legacy I don’t believe it’s a legacy of the past. It’s a living legacy that he has left us.”
Peter Dawson, the long-serving former chief executive of the Royal & Ancient, the ruling authority for golf around the world, cited the role Palmer played in broadening golf’s appeal in all corners of the globe, hailing him as the sport’s “greatest ambassador.”
“The qualities of Arnold Palmer’s magnetic character endeared him to golf fans, sports fans and indeed the wider public,” Dawson said.
“Arnie’s Army was global and affection for him was international. He was simply adored by millions.
“Arnold was golf’s greatest ambassador, both at home and abroad. He mixed with heads of state, with presidents, with prime ministers, but he never lost his common touch.
“He could open doors that were firmly closed to others. But he was more than an ambassador – he was the king, and always will be.”
Palmer, who died on Sept 25, won 62 titles on the PGA Tour during a career that saw him play a huge role in bringing golf to a mainstream audience.
His haul of titles included four US Masters green jackets, two British Opens and one US Open title.
In closing remarks towards the end of the service, Palmer’s friend Mechem said simply: “There’s an old saying that there are no irreplaceable people.
“Whoever made that line didn’t know Arnold Palmer. There will never be another.”