Editorial: Arnold Palmer gave golf its finest character

Arnold Palmer durning the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. April 11, 1968. Photo / AP
Arnold Palmer durning the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. April 11, 1968. Photo / AP

Arnold Palmer, who died yesterday aged 87, was a kind of father figure of golf for the generation that grew up with television. From the moment the game first made its happy marriage with the visual mass medium, Palmer was the senior pro in the company of comparative youngsters, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. They deferred to him, acknowledging he was already a popular figure followed by large galleries known as "Arnie's Army" everywhere he played.

Golf had big names before him but he, perhaps more than any of them, thanks to television, gave golf its character in the public eye. Those early programmes involving Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and others, established the professionalism of golf's leading exponents as public figures. In no sport then or since have players been more attentive to public relations, more willing to speak through the media to those whose support sustains the game and their earnings.

Not only did they readily speak to their fans, the golfers were usually worth listening to. They had the maturity and decency to respect the intelligence of those listening to them and did not serve up the standard responses and safe sentiments that sporting figures can be trained to spout. It is a pity to be using past tense but words such as maturity and decency cannot be used as confidently about golf's leading players in more recent years. Since the downfall of Tiger Woods, the stars of the leaderboard appear to have become as fractious, graceless and self-centred as those of any other sport.

Today's crop did golf no favours by spurning its introduction to the Olympic Games at Rio last month. But this fall from grace applies only to the men's game. Women's golf was well represented at Rio, not least by Lydia Ko. If her character, on and off the course, is typical of the young women on top of their game, the legacy of Arnold Palmer is alive and well in women's golf.

The boom that golf enjoyed worldwide in the era that began with Palmer, Nicklaus and their ilk appears to be fading. Golf clubs have seen membership decline in recent years. Courses are being closed, merged or reduced as clubs sell off land to defray debts or try to replace lost revenue. In cities such as Auckland the demand for housing is challenging golf's occupancy of urban land.

It is also under threat from changing lifestyles. Fewer people want to devote four or five hours to a game. Nine-hole courses are becoming more popular. And fewer people these days are prepared to join clubs for their leisure activities. Golf is not the only sport asking its clubs to find ways to make it easier for non-members to use their facilities.

But with legends like Arnold Palmer, golf will always attract good people. One of many stories circulating yesterday was his response to a newspaper advertisement last year offering an autographed Tiger Woods photo for $1500. "Boy I really missed the boat," said Palmer. In front of him were stacks of his signed photos he was mailing out to fans at no charge, which he did every day.

He never forgot what he owed to the game and the game will never forget him.

- NZ Herald

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