Every boy grows up with a childhood hero. Someone we looked up to, often a sports figure. My baseball hero was Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers. He played his whole career with the Tigers, and he played right field which I played in Little League. In football, my dad saw to it that I was an Ole Miss fan. The quarterback at Ole Miss was typically my favorite football player. My favorite still is Archie Manning. In basketball, I was a Boston Celtics fan (again, because of my dad), and my favorite was John Havlicek. I have signed pictures of all of these men in my home or office.
Nonetheless, the man I watched more than any other was Arnold Palmer. I remember watching him on our black and white TV repeatedly win the Masters in the 1960s. He was the first superstar of golf and especially golf on television. My dad and I talked about his swing when we would go out and play golf on Sunday afternoons. I took up golf because of my dad and Arnold Palmer.
Arnold Palmer died this past Sunday, September 25, at the age of 87. I saw him for the last time in December 2015 at Bay Hill. For two hours Sunday night, after I got home from church, I watched and listened to tributes about the man who made golf what it is today.
Through the years, I was able to see Mr. Palmer play in various golf tournaments. I have pictures from the Wednesday Par 3 tournament at Augusta National when he was paired with Jack Nicklaus in the ‘90s. Since the first year when he was honorary starter on the tee at the Masters, I was either at the tee or watching him warm up on the practice range.
During his last Masters, Terri and I followed him around the course. We knew it was something special. And it didn’t matter what he shot – he was Arnold Palmer. By that time, I had met him on several occasions while playing at an annual pastors’ golf retreat at Bay Hill. So, let me back up a minute and give you some history.
The first year I played at Bay Hill, I met Mr. Palmer on the driving range and then spoke to him again at breakfast. He was always friendly, gracious, and willing to pose for a picture or sign a scorecard. Over the years, I probably had the privilege of exchanging greetings with him a dozen times.
When his wife Winnie was diagnosed with cancer, she was on our church prayer list. Our church members sent hundreds of cards to her and Mr. Palmer expressing our prayers for them. That December, I saw him on the putting green at Bay Hill and walked toward him. He pulled out his sharpie and was anticipating that I’d want an autograph. I just went up to tell him I was praying for him and his wife. That encounter turned into a lengthy conversation where I was able to share with him about Christ and our prayers that she would be healed.
After Winnie died, Mr. Palmer’s secretary at the time (she had become a friend over the years and always got things signed for me) told me that one day he sat at his desk and wept as he read over every one of those prayer cards. Later that day I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Palmer in his office. It was a special moment I will never forget.
Over the years, my childhood hero became a living legend to me. As a guy who loves to play golf, he was still my hero. The new golfers came and went and I enjoyed watching them, but it was Mr. Palmer who always impressed me. He reminded all of us that golf is a gentleman’s game. He looked you straight in the eye when he talked to you. If you were inside the clubhouse wearing your hat, he told you to take it off because it wasn’t right to wear a hat inside.
Arnold Palmer started the trend of taking off his golf glove and putting it in his back pocket. He had an army that would follow him anywhere. He had a winning smile. It’s hard to believe that such an icon only made about $2,000,000 during his professional career (obviously he earned millions off the course). Today, an average golfer can make $2-5 million a year. As one writer said, “Arnold Palmer was Tiger Woods before there was a Tiger Woods.” He made the game popular. It is estimated that 10 million people took up the game of golf because of Arnold Palmer.
In the picture you see above, he and I had both just finished a round at Bay Hill. When he drove up to the pro shop, I stepped out and had a picture taken with him. I have a personalized picture of him at his last Masters, at his last British Open, putting on the 18th green at his first Masters win, and a special picture of the last time he was paired with Jack Nicklaus on a Sunday at the Masters. My most cherished memorabilia is when he wrote me a letter of congratulations on my tenth anniversary as Pastor at Sherwood. He took note of the fact that I had brought men from my church to play Bay Hill several times in those years. My favorite picture is one he signed “Michael, Congratulations on 1,500,” which was given to me the Sunday I preached my 1,500th sermon at Sherwood.
Early on when a group of pastors started going to Bay Hill to play golf every December, Charles Lowery and I had Mr. Palmer’s caddie from his last year on the Senior Tour. He told us some great stories that first day. The second day, we were the last group before Mr. Palmer’s group teed off at noon. By the fourth hole, he had caught up with us. The group in front of us was terrible (one guy took eight strokes to get out of the trap), and as we were standing there watching this we suddenly realized Mr. Palmer was twenty yards behind us in the fairway leaning against his cart.
I asked the caddie if he would play through, but he said Mr. Palmer would just wait. I had a 175-yard shot onto an elevated green. I told my partners I was praying I would hit a good shot and not plant a row of corn on Arnie’s course! By the grace of God (yes, I said a prayer), I hit the ball six feet from the hole. When I turned around to put my club back in the bag, there stood my childhood hero, giving me a golf clap.
A few years later, again at Bay Hill, Charles Lowery and I were staying over an extra day to play at another local course. We checked out of Bay Hill and headed to an early tee time. When we got to the other course, Charles realized he had left his cell phone in the room. I said, “No problem, I’ll just call the front desk.” Well, I called what I thought was Bay Hill, but in reality I called Mr. Palmer’s cell phone at 7:30 in the morning! (Don’t ask me how I got his cell phone number – I won’t tell you.) The phone rang about a dozen times. When I pulled it away from my ear asking myself why no one was answering, I realized I had called Mr. Palmer’s phone, and I hung up. Within two minutes he called back. I freaked out. I panicked. I had probably woken him up! I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t want him to know I was an idiot. Charles Lowery can tell this story better than I can, but needless to say it was an embarrassing and hilarious moment all wrapped into one.
Childhood heroes sometimes disappoint. Rarely do we get to meet them. I’ve had the privilege of meeting most of my heroes growing up, from Billy Graham to Arnold Palmer and a lot in-between. Some actually became friends and co-laborers in the gospel.
I must ask myself now, what am I doing to make an impression on the children and young people who sit under my ministry? Am I taking the time to stop, shake their hands, give them a hug, and look them in the eye? Am I conscious of the fact that every day there are little eyes watching me?
One thing is for sure, some heroes burst your bubble when you meet them because they aren’t what you expected. I don’t want to be that kind of person – not to my kids or to other kids. I want to be the right kind of example. I want to leave a legacy and make a difference.
Be someone’s hero today.