I write this with apologies to Hal Sutton and David Toms, the best two golfers of recent vintage from Shreveport and my favorites from the late 1970s through today.
|Arnie, his health obviously declining, at his final Masters|
opening ceremony appearance in April 2016 (from www.masters.com)
On a Sunday that began with sadness with the news of the death of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins in a boating accident and the not-totally-unexpected firing of Les Miles as head football coach at LSU, the news that evening was most difficult for me came in a text message from a friend:
"Tragically sad day. Arnold is gone."
Oh, Arnie. We loved you so.
This has been a year of more deaths of sports and sports media icons, nationally and on a personal level, than I can ever remember. For those of us who relish the late 1950s and the 1960s, Arnie was one of the greatest memories.
He was the golfer I rooted for -- not for his greatest rival and great friend, Jack Nicklaus; not Lee Trevino; not Gary Player or Raymond Floyd or Billy Casper or any of the others.
If Arnie was playing, I was in the television Army.
And one day, in June 1989, I was in the on-course Arnie's Army in a round at Sawgrass' then-new The Valley Course in North Florida. It was the only time I followed him live.
It was the Senior Players Championship; it was on a day I wasn't working at the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) and so I took the long drive (45 minutes or so) from Orange Park, where we lived to Ponte Vedra Beach, home of PGA Tour office and the adjoining course, the more famous Stadium Course.
Not having grown up as a golfer, rarely having covered the sport until the mid-1980s and still not knowing much about the intricacies, I was grateful -- despite my lack of knowledge -- to be on the Times-Union coverage team for five The Players Championship tournaments.
Arnie never played in those, his best PGA Tour days long behind him. If he had been there, I would have followed him. Still, following my other favorites -- Sutton and Greg Norman (this was before Toms made the Tour) -- was exciting.
But the one day, at the Senior Players, was memorable.
Arnie was no longer a contender but still competitive, and he did not play well that day. He struggled for, I want to say, a 74. And in the news conference afterward, which I sat in on, he was un-Arnie-like.
In the hundreds of interviews I've seen and the hundreds of stories I read, Arnie was almost always gracious, courteous, with a story/memory or two, his humor wry, his comments diplomatic even in controversy.
That day at Sawgrass, he was a bit peeved. His answers about his game were curt, not expansive. He wasn't rude, but he obviously was not happy with his play.
He was, as we were reminded last night watching a 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, his own toughest critic. He told Charlie that his Latrobe, Pa., club pro father, Deke, who had brought him up in and taught him the game, always told him: "Don't tell people how great you are; show them."
Obviously, he showed them so much over the years. For me, he was golf for many years.
I have seen many beautiful stories/columns written on Arnie the past few days, including those by my golf writer friends -- Jeff Rude, Garry Smits, Jeff Babineau -- and by the great Dan Jenkins (of Fort Worth). (Links are below.)
My favorite Arnie golf memory: His last of his 62 PGA Tour victories, at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He won it in typical Arnie fashion, with flair: A last-hole birdie putt, and a pump-fisting celebration. We were watching on TV at The Shreveport Times.
Biggest Arnie disappointment: What else? The 1966 U.S. Open when he blew a seven-shot lead in the final nine of the fourth round, while Billy Casper blazed to a 32 and tied him. Then Casper won an 18-hole playoff the next day.
Arnie finished second in the Open again the next year (he was second four times in a six-year period), but he never won another major.
Watching that Sunday round from San Francisco was, unbelievably, an even greater collapse than Norman's blowing a six-shot lead in the first nine holes at the 1996 Masters, finishing with a painful 78 and losing by five shots to Faldo. Loved watching Norman, exciting and flawed, almost as much as Arnie.
My fondest Arnie memory: He was guest host of The Tonight Show, the first athlete I'd ever seen do that. Looked this up -- it was July 17, 1970, one of those rare nights (there's a laugh here) that Johnny Carson was away on vacation or appearing in Las Vegas. I loved Carson and The Tonight Show, so I watched often.
I was so proud Arnie was the host. Don't remember much, except he was not exactly adept at the monologue, not quite as at home as on a golf course, and I know he wore a bright red blazer. Arnie always was a colorful dresser.
He was a colorful character, period, and one of the sports greats of our time. He was golf's ace ambassador.