Arnie’s Army of Friends

As I began drafting the next post in my series, New Year; New Types of Friends, the 2020 Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Course was in full swing (pun intended!). During Thursday’s first round, the Golf Channel showed a three-part film titled, Arnie, about one of golf’s greatest icons: Arnold Palmer. It is a fitting tribute to Palmer’s life and legacy, along with the relationship with his legions of fans affectionately known as “Arnie’s Army.” The film reminded me that every man – not just a legendary golfer, needs an army of close buddies or what you might call his inner circle of friends.  

Arnie: the Film

The opening words set the direction of this film: “How do you tell the story of a life — that’s larger than life?” starts Tom Selleck, “Someday, years, even decades” — or centuries from now — “they’ll hear the name Arnold Palmer, and they’ll want to know everything. Where he came from. What he aspired to. How he built a legacy truly unlike any other.” 

Narrated by actor and producer Tom Selleck, the article Arnie: Definitive film on life, legacy of Arnold Palmer details his life, career, and legacy. It describes Arnie’s roots in Latrobe, PA where he learned golf from his father, Deacon, who suffered from polio at a young age but was the head professional and greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club. It shows Arnie’s amateur and college playing career at Wake Forest University where he became close friends with Bud Worsham and time in the U.S. Coast Guard. The tribute elevates his relationship with Winnie Walzer, his wife of 45 years, along with their two daughters, and Arnie’s sister. 

The documentary wonderfully shows Arnie’s army of friends, including his competitive friendship with Jack Nicklaus and his relationship with fans. It describes Palmer’s outstanding record in the major golf tournaments. It chronicles his legacy as a sports marketer, in which professional golf – and professional sports for that matter, changed dramatically. 

About Arnold Palmer

Arnold Daniel Palmer (September 10, 1929 – September 25, 2016) is widely regarded as one of the most charismatic players in the sport’s history. Nicknamed “The King,” Palmer was one of golf’s most popular stars and the first superstar of the sport’s television age, which began in the 1950s.

Palmer’s social impact on golf was unrivaled among fellow professionals. Arnie’s modest origins and plain-spoken popularity helped change the perception of the sport from an elite, upper-class pastime of private clubs, to a more populist sport accessible to middle and working classes via public courses. 

Dating back to 1955, Arnold Palmer won numerous events on both the PGA Tour and the circuit now known as PGA Tour Champions. During the 1960s, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player were “The Big Three” credited with popularizing and commercializing golf around the world. In a career spanning more than six decades, Palmer won 62 PGA Tour titles from 1955 to 1973. He is fifth on the Tour’s all-time victory list, trailing only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan. Palmer won seven major titles in six-plus-year domination from the 1958 Masters to the 1964 Masters. In 1974, Palmer was one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He won the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

Palmer died on September 25, 2016 (shortly after his 87th birthday) while awaiting heart surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. After his funeral, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in his hometown at Latrobe Country Club. His estate was valued at $875 million and was divided between his two daughters, his second wife, Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop (who received $10 million), eight employees who received $25,000 each, and his charity, Arnie’s Army, which received $10 million.

His Friendship with Bud Worsham

The development of Arnie’s army of friends began early in his golf career. A post from Wake Forest University titled Arnie and Bud details the friendship between Palmer and Bud Worsham.  Late in the summer of 1946, Palmer made a name for himself at the Hearst National Junior Golf Championship. Just a student at Latrobe High School, he was his first time on the national stage. Palmer delivered a solid performance finishing as runner-up in the event. But Arnie said neither the exposure nor the near-victory impacted him as much as his new friend. “Something that would have a far greater impact on my career and life than winning,” Palmer confessed. “I met Buddy Worsham.”

Arnold Palmer, Coach Johnny Johnston, and Bud Worsham

After becoming a highly-skilled amateur, Worsham suggested that Palmer join him at Wake Forest. They were the university’s first two real golf recruits. Palmer and Worsham became inseparable and quickly made the team one of the best programs in the country. But just a few months into their senior year, tragedy struck. 

On October 21, 1950, the two friends spent their Saturday afternoon watching Wake Forest’s homecoming football game. Afterward, they planned to get dinner and attend the homecoming dance, held in nearby Durham. However, Arnie ended up falling asleep. When Bud woke him to leave, the groggy Palmer declined, saying he and teammate, Jim Flick were going to the movies instead. Arnie tried to persuade Worsham and the others to stay but their minds were made up.

Later that night on the way back from the dance, Bud’s car veered off the road. It plunged 50 feet down into a streambed, killing both Worsham and his passenger, Gene Sheer on impact. Sadly, Arnie had to identify his best friend’s body and accompany the casket to Worsham’s hometown.

Palmer and Flick tried to help each other through the tragedy, with Arnie moving into Jim’s dorm room after the accident. Arnie left school a few months later to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he served three years before returning to his golf career. 

Palmer and Flick remained friends for more than 60 years, though not necessarily tight. Palmer regretted they weren’t closer. The circumstances of the tragic event were something they would never really get over. For Palmer, it elicited strong emotions. “That was a bad time in my life,” Palmer told Golf Digest, choking back emotion. “It shook me enough that I finished the semester and then joined the Coast Guard that January. I didn’t know what to do. I was very dismayed, unsettled. I lost my best buddy. And Gene, too, was a good friend.”

In January 1960, Palmer created the Buddy Worsham Memorial Scholarship to provide financial aid for Wake Forest undergraduates on the men’s varsity golf team. Palmer would never forget his friend and memorialized him by always displaying a picture of Bud in his office. In 2015, Palmer would say, “My life never would have happened the way it did without Bud Worsham.”

A Friendly Rivalry with The Golden Bear

Arnie and Jack Nicklaus

Later in his illustrious career, Arnold Palmer shared a friendship and rivalry with Jack Nicklaus, “The Golden Bear”.

Palmer won seven major championships during his career; the most famous was the 1960 U.S. Open when he stormed back from six shots down on Sunday to beat a young Nicklaus. 

Their rivalry continued throughout their careers. Nicklaus won 73 PGA Tour titles and 18 majors, while Palmer bagged 62 titles and 7 majors. While their rivalry existed on and off the course, they did grow to like each other into a friendship that lasted over 50 years.

Nicklaus once said, “Did Arnie and I agree on everything? No, we had some differences. But I will promise that if I ever had a problem, Arnold Palmer has always been there for me and vice versa”. 

Continuing, Nicklaus said, “We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way,” Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed.”

The Close Friendship with Mark McCormack

Some consider Arnold Palmer one of the best marketers ever. He teamed with Mark Hume McCormack (1930-2003), a former golfer and lawyer, who leaped to prominence with a legendary handshake deal to represent Palmer in 1960. But Palmer agreed to come on board with one condition: he would be Mark’s only client. McCormack would become one of Arnie’s closest friends and part of his inner circle that would change sports marketing forever.

Mark McCormack and Arnold Palmer at St. Andrews

Soon after Palmer’s first tour win in 1955, new energy emerged in the golfing world. Admiring golf fans rapidly transformed into “Arnie’s Army” – passionate supporters who loved the way he played the game and lived.

McCormack also founded International Management Group (now called IMG), a sports management firm that represents several sports figures and celebrities. By 1990, Sports Illustrated named McCormack the “Most Powerful Man In Sport.”

In 1995, McCormack and Palmer teamed up with Joe Gibbs, a Birmingham, Alabama businessman to launch the Golf Channel; the first single-sport cable network in the United States. In the 22 years since, the Golf Channel expanded to become available in more than 200 million homes, in 84 countries, and in 11 languages. Mark Steinberg, a partner at Excel Sports Management and former IMG executive, once called Palmer and McCormack trailblazers, “They allowed what I do with Tiger and what they do with Jordan and Lebron to happen, for sports to become this giant platform for entertainment and marketing.”

Arnold Palmer was the first athlete with significant marketing influence on popular culture, an influence that continues to this day. With McCormack’s help, Palmer’s wide-ranging reach is unrivaled. Arnold sits on his tractor touting the benefits of Pennzoil motor oil, while concurrently, serving as an ambassador for the luxury brand, Rolex.

“When Mark McCormack passed away, I lost one of my closest friends,” said Palmer at McCormack’s memorial service. “I never regretted for a moment that I had placed so much of my future in his hands.”

Winnie and Arnold Palmer

Palmer Foundation and Hospitals

Along with his beloved first wife, Winnie, the Palmers were deeply engaged in philanthropic work throughout his career. He founded both the Arnold Palmer Pavilion at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Florida. In 2006, the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies was named after Winnie, who died of ovarian cancer in 1999. 

Today, the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation continues the founders’ devotion to youth. It encourages strong character and supports children who are facing health challenges. The Palmer Foundation’s vision is a “Life Well Played.” It honors their commitment to nature and its ability to enrich and heal us.

GodBuddies: Your Army of Friends

Like Arnold Palmer, every man needs an army of friends; their inner circle.

As I wrote in my The Introduction to Real-life Friendships, a man’s inner circle of friends should contain five archetypes: The Mentor, The Wingman/Bachelor, The Handyman, The Fitness Buff, The Work Pal, along with my addition, The GodBuddy. Another model is the biblical triad of Timothy, Barnabas, and Paul model I wrote about in Three Relationships Every Man Needs.

Do you have an army of friends? How many of these archetypes of men are in your inner circle? 

My next post is on the friendship of boxers, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.


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