My moment with Arnold Palmer

palmer
(Vestron Video, 1989)

So I’m thinking of hitting that bucket of balls at a driving range in L.A. last month–first time I had a golf club in my hand in years—and finding that my slice was as wicked as ever, all this in relation to the death yesterday of Arnold Palmer, whom I once saw, after being asked to hit an iron some 200 yards down the fairway at a video camera set-up, land it effortlessly within 10 feet.

This was probably 20 years or so ago, long before selfies and maybe even cellphones, so I sure don’t have a picture with me and Arnold, and I can’t say how long my hair was—which could well have been an issue: I tend to let my hair grow long, then cut it short once or twice a year, tops. If it was long, well, I figure that might explain what I felt was Arnold’s coldness, if not outright antipathy, toward me.

Long hair and a beard. Maybe I’m putting too much on appearance. For sure, no one could have been more eager for an expenses-paid trip to Florida to interview Arnold Palmer about a golf instructional home video program he was taping. Notice that I said “home video,” and let me stipulate here that it was for videocassette. Like I said, this was long before the selfies era, indeed, back in the dark ages of videocassettes and VCRs, er, videocassette recorders.

I’d been a golf fan forever, though maybe Arnold sensed that I was a big Jack Nicklaus fan over him, much as I was a big Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali fan over the boxing establishment favorites back in the day—the day, of course, being the 1960s, when I most certainly fit the hippie mold in politics and appearance. Now, sadly, much of my hair is gone, and what I have is so short that Arnold might well have liked me (if he got past the beard, though longer hair—and facial hair—have long since come to the PGA). But I’m sure he’d still sense that politically—and above all, in social class—I’m way to the left of his patrician tracks.

But I just saw a picture posted of Ali and Arnold together, when they were honorary captains at the 2007 Orange Bowl. And I wrote a piece here last November when Ali expressed his “great pleasure” that Jack, as “one of sports biggest living legends,” would receive the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.

“Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well-being,” Ali said, via a statement. “For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

But who knows what Jack and Arnie thought about Muhammad when he was Cassius—let alone when he refused induction into the Army? And I should note my disappointment last May when Jack, whom I also interviewed and who was wonderful, said he’d vote for Trump, calling him a “good man [who’s] turning America upside down [and] awakening the country.”

As for Arnold now, I’m was with Jack all the way—my personal experience notwithstanding.

“We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports,” jack said in a statement. “Arnold transcended the game of golf. He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans—Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed. He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

And let the final word come from President Obama, who tweeted, with a photo of him putting in the oval office while Arnold and others looked on, “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary on the links as he was generous to others.”

He went further in an official statement: “With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it. From a humble start working at the local club in his beloved Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to superstardom as the face of golf around the globe, Arnold was the American Dream come to life. Along the way he racked up win after win–but it wasn’t his success that made him King. Arnold’s freewheeling, fearless approach to the game inspired a generation of golfers and, for the first time on TV, enthralled an audience across the world. Sure, we liked that he won seven majors, but we loved that he went for it when he probably should have laid up. That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did: from building hospitals to personally responding to countless letters from his fans. And he did it all with a grin that hinted maybe he had one more shot up his sleeve. Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie’s Army in saluting the King.”

World Kindness Day, Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus

It’s horribly ironic that the Paris massacre took place on of all days, World Kindness Day, yet altogether fitting that the man who most exemplifies kindness is the world’s most famous Muslim.

“Kindest person I know?” tweeted Matt Lauer. “@MuhammadAli. Always has been, always will be.”

Hear! Hear!

Ali is somehow always in the news. It’s always a big anniversary of one of his famous fights, or the passing of another opponent, another big endorsement deal, publicized support for a person or cause or sports team, and of course, concern for his health.

In the last few weeks have come new reports of his impending demise, which resurface understandably at least once every year. But they were quickly denied by a family spokesman, and sure enough, tweets under both the @Muhammad Ali and @realALI_me Twitter handles have continued, some with photos showing the Greatest of All Time if not lively, most certainly alive.

But the big Ali news of late came last week when it was announced that Jack Nicklaus has been chosen to receive the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which was established in 2008 to honor athletes and sports figures who have embodied the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy. It was renamed in tribute to Ali last month during a ceremony at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville that was attended by Ali, his wife Lonnie, and such notables as George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Shaquille O’Neal.

Ali and Jack remain my two biggest sports heroes, and I’ve been lucky enough to interview them both.

“It gives me great pleasure to know the first Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award will be given to one of sports’ biggest living legends, Jack Nicklaus,” Ali said, though I’m sure Lonnie read his statement. “Jack’s passion for excellence on the golf course is only surpassed by his love and passion for children and their well being. For decades, he has used his celebrity to bring awareness and support for children’s health. I can not think of a more deserving person for this special inaugural award than the Golden Bear, himself.”

Jack received the Congressional Gold Medal earlier this year (along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—which he also has, it’s the highest honor given to a U.S. civilian), and now joins Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Earvin Magic Johnson as Legacy Award honorees.

“There are very few in the sporting world who are more synonymous with the word ‘legacy’ than Muhammad Ali, so to have his name attached to the prestigious Legacy Award is so fitting,” said Jack. “He is not only known universally as the ‘Champ,’ but he has been a wonderful global ambassador for sports and our country. This is a marvelous way to honor his contributions past and present, and to ensure that generations going forward will have the opportunity to learn, respect and admire all Muhammad Ali has done for the sporting world. That is why to be the first recipient of the Ali Legacy Award is both humbling and an honor.”

What I love so much about this is that Jack comes from a completely different world than Muhammad—white, establishment, well-to-do, the type who likely would’ve hated him when he was Cassuis Clay and especially after he changed his name and religion and refused induction into the armed forces. But Jack was always a great sports fan and greater sportsman, and he and Ali famously met at the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Ali’s Louisville hometown.

Ali actually had a previous experience on a golf course that was also famous–and nowhere near as pleasant. Just before his first fight with Ken Norton in 1973, he was hitting golf balls at a driving range and sprained his ankle. He explained that he was bored just standing there and hitting balls, and decided to try driving them after a running start. Ali went on to lose the Norton fight on a split decision, and suffered a broken jaw in the process.

In 1999 Jack was chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Individual Male Athlete of the 20th Century.

“Jack is the ultimate ambassador for golf and the sporting world,” said Sports Illustrated group editor Paul Fichtenbaum. “From his play, which set the standard in golf for decades and is still held up as the benchmark today, to his successful business pursuits and tireless efforts to support a range of charitable causes, Jack is one of a kind. Having spent a lifetime using his celebrity and influence for philanthropic endeavors and goodwill missions while serving as an inspiration for so many people around the world, Jack represents the ideals of the Legacy Award and stands up perfectly next to the award’s namesake, Muhammad Ali.”

Indeed, Jack has supported numerous charities and with wife Barbara started his own–the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation, which provides pediatric services in various communities
nationwide and has raised tens of millions of dollars over the last decade.

Ali, of course, has devoted his life to promoting world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, hunger relief and humanitarianism. His name has been attached to at least a score of charities and institutions, including the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

He remains the role model for courage and grace in the face of enormous challenges and odds, and that he is still here is a blessing for all of us.