Sporting Life

Risk-taking, fan-friendly Arnold Palmer a great example to athletes now

Early Monday morning, two weeks of holiday over and scrounging for a column idea, I settle on the Ryder Cup as a subject. I reach into my bookshelf for research material and pull out a charming book on two old adventurers. Surely "Arnie & Jack" will have tales to tell.

Ian O'Connor's treatise on Palmer, Nicklaus and golf's greatest rivalry is like a wistful walk through a gentler time. Just two pages in, he captures Palmer by quoting Frank Chirkinian, the pathbreaking TV producer, who says: "Arnold had something well below his skin that attracted people to him. He looked like the type of fellow you could walk up to and say 'Let's have a beer' and he would."

I was smiling at that story when I put on the TV and discovered that Palmer, 87, had died.

Actually, let's just call him Arnie. Because in golf's over-formal, slightly phoney world he was a hero with a blue collar. King as regular guy. I never met him but as a boy I would listen to tales about him from my uncle which made me wish I had. Cigarette inhaled, Coca-Cola slurped, pants hitched, audacious shot hammered. He was a hat-less John Wayne armed with a twirling club. Irresistible.

Modern stars have fan clubs and Twitter followers and Facebook friends. Nice. Arnie had an Army. Enough said. From a stiff sport had come a swaggering force who even today offers two valuable lessons to the wider fraternity of athletes.

Palmer understood that sport was a show and fans had to be entertained and hands were there to be strongly shaken. He seemed a charismatic figure who appreciated the power of contact. "When people ask," he said "what's driven me all these years, I always give the same answer. It's you."

Firstly, don't ignore your fans because what is sport without them?

Even as if we live in a connected era, accessing our heroes on Twitter, Instagram, TV, we're actually further from them than we ever were. Hidden behind shades, security guards, agents, PR people, the modern star is a machine-like figure who utters practised answers.

But Palmer understood that sport was a show and fans had to be entertained and hands were there to be strongly shaken. He seemed a charismatic figure who appreciated the power of contact. "When people ask," he said, "what's driven me all these years, I always give the same answer. It's you."

Fans always reach out to champions but only some consistently reach back. I remember reading once that Cal Ripken Jr, the baseball player, once signed roughly 100,000 autographs in a year. Arnie was similar: by giving to a game, he grew a game.

Yesterday morning, reading the tributes, I found so many instances of Arnie having written encouraging letters to people: to kids, to women players, to first-time champions. In this generosity lay an understanding that a letter from a sporting hero is like an inspiring note from god.

Perhaps the loveliest tale I found was told by AP's Doug Ferguson in June this year. He wrote about "a stack of items" on Arnie's desk, "nearly a foot high - photos, pin flags, books - from people around the world wanting to get them signed". How long did Arnie autograph them, he asked. Sometimes two to three hours a day, he was told.

If sport needs the ruthless workaholic with both eyes unblinkingly fixed on history, then it also needs such charmers. When Golf Digest asked Arnie in 2008 if he would have won more if he had practised more instead of mingling with fans and sponsors and the media, he said: "Well, I couldn't have enjoyed it more than I did if I had devoted more time to my golf itself."

The second thing sport should take from Palmer is risk taking. No doubt we admire those who play the percentages, reduce error and embrace consistency but sport isn't an accountancy exam. It also needs the gambler, the heart-attack giver, the "you're-kidding-me" athlete who has the lunatic spirit to roll over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.

One of the reasons football is turning dull is because no wants to lose but Arnie would try any shot to win. If the high stakes of today's sport is suffocating the adventure out of coaches and athletes, then he was golf's version of the guy who did handstands on a high wire. Of course, he fell. His refusal to play safe cost him - he wrote in his book A Golfer's Life - "three or four US Opens, perhaps a Masters or two, and the PGA Championship on at least two occasions".

Yet as he risked he also soared and said that "if I hadn't had the instinctive desire to attempt those shots, regardless of the outcome, almost without thinking, I wouldn't have won half the tournaments I did".

Eventually he collected seven Major titles and it places him joint seventh on the list of most Majors won, with 11 fewer than Nicklaus. Yet an athlete's high place in the memory doesn't depend purely on numbers of trophies won but on joy left behind. In sport the great are many, but the adored are few. Golf grieves for Arnie because he was both.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Risk-taking, fan-friendly Arnie a great example to athletes now'. Print Edition | Subscribe