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Herb Gould’s ode to Arnie: Golf’s Babe Ruth is gone

Arnold Palmer in action during the U.S.Open Golf Championship at Olympic Country Club, San Francisco, Calif., June 19, 1966.(AP Photo)

Arnold Palmer, a game changer unlike any other in the sport of golf, is gone. The man who presided over golf’s transition from a rich-folks/country-club sport into a game for the masses, was 87.

Palmer’s nickname was “The King.”’ But I prefer to think of him as the Babe Ruth of golf.

Where the Babe would down a hot dog or two, Palmer would take a drag or two on a cigarette. While some rivals teased the Babe about his barrel chest and piano legs, Arnie had an intense, athletic swing that was hardly graceful.

But with amazing arm strength, an intense competitive spirit and a flair for the dramatic, Palmer made himself into a champion.

Ruth revived baseball from the Black Sox scandal with his home run. Palmer put the British Open on the golf-major map by crossing the Atlantic when many Americans weren’t interested.

The Babe had the Baby Ruth candy bar. Arnie has his Arnold Palmer lemonade/iced-tea drink.

Jack Nicklaus, with his 18 major victories and 19 second-place finishes, is the king in terms of winning. Tiger Woods, with 14 major wins in a remarkable 12-year span, is golf’s crown prince. And Bobby Jones, with his 1930 grand slam and his creation of the Masters tournament, is the game’s greatest founding father.

But Arnie captured our hearts.

I remember walking with him at the Senior U.S. Open at Olympia Fields in 1997. He was 67, and had barely made the cut at 11-over par.

He was in the first pairing to tee off in the third round early on Saturday morning. And yet, he had a huge gallery. And despite shooting 80, he did not disappoint them.

Walking from the tee to his ball, he would wave and stop to shake hands. When someone who vaguely knew him flagged him down, he’d engage them in a quick conversation.

On the par-3 11th hole, he hooked his tee shot into a deep ravine left of the green. His provisional shot also veered into the abyss.

Down in the trees, Palmer found his ball.

“Give me a sand wedge, and give me a line,” he told his caddie, who pointed the King at the hole.

Palmer plopped the ball onto the green, and two-putted for an apparent bogey.

But as we were walking to the next tee, he examined the ball, and realized it was his provisional. He told the scorer to give him a 6 on the hole on the hole instead of a 4.

And then he went back to smiling and saying hello to people in between shots.

During that round, I got to know his friend, Howdy Holmes, a dentist and USGA official. He asked me if I’d send a copy of my story, and I did.

Not long after that, I received an autographed photo of Palmer.

That might be the only athlete’s autograph I have. I’ve heard that the value of Palmer’s signature is diminished because the photo says, ‘To Herb.”

No matter. I wouldn’t give up that photo for the world.

Palmer’s seven major titles, including a dramatic comeback in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, are remarkable stuff.

But the way Arnie carried himself is what turned golf from an elitist game into an everyman sport in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, and puts Palmer at the top of golf’s most influential players.

His gallery, known as Arnie’s Army, followed him everywhere. At the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, Arnie’s Army famously made a young Nicklaus’ life miserable while rooting for Palmer, a native of nearby Latrobe, Pa.

No luck. Nicklaus defeated Palmer in a playoff.

Although they were great rivals, they were even greater friends from the very beginning. Before that playoff at Oakmont, Palmer offered to split a bonus that went to the winner, to ease the pressure on Nicklaus, who was only 22 at the time.

Palmer was the first professional athlete to take advantage of marketing and branding through the broad appeal that the television age brought.

With agent Mark McCormack, Palmer used his everyman appeal to endorse a boggling variety of products. What Michael Jordan did as a Bulls’ star beginning in the 1980s, Palmer paved the way for decades earlier.

Like Mike, the key was Palmer’s charisma as well as his athletic success. And as with Jordan, Palmer’s endorsement appeal went on long after his competitive-athlete career was over.

Palmer was a great player. But his influence as a hero and ambassador for golf, and all of sports, will be his true lasting legacy.

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould and at TMGcollegesports.com