King of Golf, King of Hearts
by Karen V. Contino
On Sept. 25, 2016, the world lost a golf legend and Central Florida lost a community champion.
Arnold Palmer’s celebrated golf career saw seven major titles, including four Masters Tournament championships, 62 PGA Tour wins, 95 professional victories, 26 amateur victories, 10 Champions Tour victories, and six Ryder Cup appearances and World Cup appearances, respectively, until his retirement on Oct. 13, 2006. He then served as an honorary starter for the Masters.
His unique style of golf garnered a legion of fans, known as Arnie’s Army, and the famous nickname “The King.”
Born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Arnold first acquired his driving ambition to play the game of golf from his father, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, who was the head professional and superintendent at Latrobe Country Club.
Arnold would later attend college on a golf scholarship before serving in the U.S. Coast Guard for three years. He continued to play golf throughout, and, in 1954, after significant amateur success, he decided to turn pro. His decision would alter the course of golf history.
“It is literally impossible to describe his impact on golf,” said Suzann Pettersen, a professional golfer. “It is impossible to put into words what he’s given to the game. His greatness was just enormous. I’m very fortunate I was able to spend some time getting to know him. There was always something to pick up and learn.”
Pettersen also sought Arnold’s advice regarding his successful golf-related business career, which included Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where she’s been a member since she moved to Orlando in 2003. She was elated at his friendliness and readiness to share his knowledge.
“I wanted to ask him about sports management, as I was looking to start a business,” she said. “Two hours later, he told me the whole story. He took the time. I expected two minutes, and he gave me two hours. He gave me all the stuff you can’t read in a book. Those kinds of moments are priceless, literally.”
Throughout those years, Arnold sent Pettersen several personal letters offering continued advice, encouragement and even humor.
“Every time a letter came in the mail, I was ecstatic,” she said. “And there was a story behind every letter. I have maybe 12 to 13 letters framed in my office. They are all great memories. Sometimes they gave me a laugh. It was a very professional touch, a very unique thing to do. He [wrote letters] for other players, as well. He was a great man to know.
“And he was always super generous and humble,” she added. “He cared. He had this aura, you could feel it. You felt like you were the only one in the world talking to him.”
Marci Doyle, Arnold Palmer Invitational’s chief operating officer and tournament director, recalled Arnold’s jovial demeanor.
“If you didn’t see him coming, you’d hear him whistling or saying ‘Hello, how you doing?’ down the hall,” she said. “He was very jolly.
Sam Saunders (front), Arnold Palmer’s grandson, leads fellow PGA Tour players in a ceremonial opening shot to honor his late grandfather and officially kick off the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“He’s everything you’ve heard and more,” she added. “He was a kind, giving person. And he was humble. It’s an honor to continue his legacy — a legacy that will live well past his years.”
After Arnold passed, Doyle and her team worked diligently to keep the Arnold Palmer Invitational one of the top events on the PGA Tour, while paying tribute to Palmer. With a focus on new traditions, such as an Arnie cardigan awarded to the champion and tributes to Palmer during the opening ceremony, the tournament will continue to thrive.
“Our team’s biggest objective was honoring him without being too flashy,” she said. “He didn’t like to be put on a pedestal. It was finding the right balance.”
This year’s tournament featured a new opening ceremony and a host committee that included professional golfers Peter Jacobsen, Graeme McDowell, Annika Sörenstam, Curtis Strange and the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. They also placed Arnold’s golf cart, unoccupied, in his favorite place to watch the play.
As a tribute to the late Arnold Palmer, his golf cart is placed in his favorite watching spot during the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“It was his spot,” Doyle said. “He would sit there and watch. He was the only one that could drive right up on the 16 tee box, and everyone, even all the players, loved it. He was magnanimous.”
Arnold fell in love with the Bay Hill area after playing nearby in golf tournaments. He purchased the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in 1974, and it quickly became a PGA Tour stop.
“He had come down to play the Citrus Open several times, and he realized he loved the area here,” Doyle said. “He went up in a helicopter around the Isleworth and Bay Hill area and said, ‘That’s what I want.’ He saw all the citrus groves and got the feel of the area, and he purchased it. He had a major connection from the beginning.”
Arnold Palmer Medical Center
In the early 1980s, Arnold’s connection to Central Florida would forever change the course of health care for children, women and families. He and his wife, Winnie, were invited to tour the Orlando Regional Medical Center with John Bozard, then the CFO of Orlando Regional Healthcare System, and neonatologist Gregor Alexander, M.D. The couple witnessed firsthand the busy neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit areas.
(L. to r.) Gregor Alexander, M.D., and Arnold and Winnie Palmer discuss the health care services at Orlando Regional Medical Center, prior to the couple becoming involved in the openings of Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.
“At the end of the tour, we asked him, ‘What did you think?’” said Bozard, now the president of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation. “He said, ‘Well I think you’re doing great work here, but I think we could do better for our kids.’ The rest is history, so to speak.”
“’We can do better,’ that was his motto,” Doyle said. “He was always working to make things better.”
On Arnold’s 60th birthday, he helped to officially open Orlando’s first hospital dedicated to women and children — Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. In 2006, Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies opened just across the street.
Dr. Alexander, a neonatologist at Winnie Palmer Hospital and its NICU’s namesake, recalled that he was swiftly impressed with Arnold.
“I quickly learned he was generous, caring, compassionate and committed,” he said.
Arnold’s follow-through was equally impressive, Bozard said. He was known to visit the hospitals, offering comfort and encouragement to the patients and staff.
“On one visit, he went to see a little boy who had just had open heart surgery and was really down, really depressed,” Bozard said. “[Arnold] walked in and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And the boy responded, ‘No.’ He said, ‘This hospital has my name on it’. And they began chatting. Soon the boy’s [food] tray came, and he started eating. The nurse came in and said, ‘Oh my gosh, he hasn’t eaten in two days.’ He just had this way about him.”
Arnold tirelessly ensured that the medical center would continue to flourish with The Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation as benefactors. Future plans for the hospital include a new patient wing expansion, programs, neuroscience area, heart surgery and pediatric oncology area.
“While his claim to fame was his legendary talent and his fresh and exciting approach to the game of golf, which captivated the attention of millions of people, Arnold’s mark on this world was so much more,” Bozard wrote in a letter published by the Orlando Health Foundation. “I am sure that history will be kind to Arnold for the incredible impact he had on that sport, but I believe all of it will pale in comparison to the impact that his generosity has made on the lives and well-being of children and families throughout Central Florida — and even the world. His commitment to help us make his hospital the best it could be never wavered. Through the years, I asked him for his help in so many different ways, and never did he turn down any request ever made of him. He always gave far more than was expected.”
“Arnold Palmer is a legend in our family,” one patient family wrote in an Orlando Health Foundation newsletter. “He and his wife, Winnie, built the hospital that saved our Sydney’s life, not once, but two times. I can never thank them enough, and if there is a heaven, Mr. Palmer certainly belongs there. Thank you, sir, and rest in peace. You did great work here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Palmer,” another family wrote. “Your kindness and generosity will live on in the lives of the children and families you helped, including the lifesaving tools which saved our son, Hunter.”
“Arnold was the driving force for the success of the medical center,” Dr. Alexander agreed. “We would not have been able to have the growth and build without Arnold Palmer. He gave us the power to be able to provide outstanding health care to babies, children and women. And we can praise him every single day of our [lives]. He may have been the King of Golf to the world, but to us, he was the King of Hearts. And that’s how we will remember him.”
Pettersen was also inspired by Arnold’s performance outside of golf.
“He was a legend on and off the golf course,” she said. “The impact he made here in Orlando, his generous and unique legacy, will live long because of his work and effort. He was an example for all of us in golf for what we can do today.”
Today, Arnie’s Army has taken on a new purpose to continue Arnold’s goal to “do better.”
“We have been charged with carrying his legacy and all he did, doing good things for people and giving back,” said Kevin Bingham, chief executive officer of the Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation.
Formed in 2015, Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation was entrusted to continue Arnold Palmer’s legacy of philanthropy, including financial support to institutions and organizations that support the well-being and development of children and youth, support health and wellness initiatives, and strengthen communities and the environment.
Arnie’s Army will continue to support Arnold Palmer Medical Center, as well as the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania.
“Arnold Palmer made friends all across this nation,” Bingham said. “As a result, our charge is to take our message to the masses of people who belong to his army. This makes us a nationally focused philanthropic organization. We plan to carry the message of ‘doing good and giving back’ for many years to come so that generations of young people can be exposed to the man who meant so much to so many.” ♥