Ruminations on THE Arnold Palmer

I hate iced tea. I hate iced tea because iced tea is nothing. It is not tea and it is not water. All iced tea is is a murky brown liquid that has only the vaguest resemblance to its name.

Iced tea looks and tastes like a polluted, stagnant swimming pool. Iced tea is what you order when you want to pretend to be drinking something, when actually you are drinking nothing but rusty, mouth-drying H2O.

You know who loves iced tea? Americans. Americans order it because it makes them feel like they’re ordering something special to drink, when in reality, they are ordering nothing but perfectly good water that’s been spoiled by a weak bag of gawdawful, cheap tea.

Tea is, and always has been, a warm drink. A drink whose flavor derives from the steeping of leaves (fresh, dried or fermented) in hot water — the better to release the essences, aromas, antioxidants and tannin from the leaves. I hate hot tea too, but when it’s made properly, i.e., carefully and warm, at least it tastes like what it is….and what it’s supposed to be.

Arnold Palmer obviously recognized the loathsome qualities of iced tea when he had the good sense to add some lemonade to his way back in the Sixties. But to my mind, he only made things worse. Because once the most popular athlete on the planet decided to do christen a drink (especially at the dawn of the television advertising age), everybody wanted to get on board. As a result, from about 1964 forward, every single, goddamned country club, golf course, watering hole, backwater diner, luncheonette and shithole restaurant in the goddamned country has been making gallons of iced friggin’ tea to slake the thirst of  slackjawed customers who would be better off with a glass of f*cking water.

Yep, Arnie sure figured out how to make the worst cold drink on the planet palatable, but he also ended up ruining a perfectly good glass of lemonade in the process.

I can forgive Arnie this transgression because I, like so many others, loved Arnold Palmer, the man.  By all accounts he was the genuine article. A kind, warm, friendly fellow who never let his fame go to his head. There are probably a million people out there who have a story about Palmer shaking their hand, looking into their eyes, and treating them, if only for a moment or two, like the most important person he had ever met.

I forgave Arnie a long time ago for his sins. For never winning the PGA, for blowing a seven stroke lead on Billy Casper in the U.S. Open and for not beating Jack Nicklaus more than he did. He let me and my dad down more than once as we stared into a grainy TV picture and tried to cheer him on to one of his famous “charges” on the back nine of a tournament. But somehow, in losing, he became even more beloved, even more noble. Palmer fans felt the heartbreak with every missed fairway or putt. His expressive face and emotions-on-his-sleeve demeanor pulled us into his world — unlike the cold, calculating Nicklaus who exuded all the warmth of a two-iron.

They say they don’t make ’em like that anymore and they don’t. When news of his death reached the PGA Tour late yesterday, the tributes and accolades came pouring in. But one of the most telling came from Rory McIlroy (from all accounts, a decent chap in his own right):  “If it weren’t for Arnie, we wouldn’t have all the success we have (on the tour), and we wouldn’t be playing for the obscene amounts of money we do today.”

So true, and so true that athletes today (in all sports) can make a name for themselves and immediately rope themselves off from reality and their fans. Arnold Palmer never roped himself off from anyone. For over half a century (and most of my life), he was one of the most famous people in the world, but he never acted like it.

I saw him in person only once, at the Citrus Open golf tournament in Orlando, Florida, back in 1967. He walked right past me on his way to the first tee, surrounded by fans and officials. (You could actually walk along with the players then, unlike today.) I remember thinking he was smaller than I thought he would be. In my teenage brain, I guess I expected him to be a foot taller than me. But there he was, smiling at everyone, and shaking hand after hand with those big, bricklayer paws of his. A gentleman in a gentleman’s sport who didn’t know how to be any other way.

“My father taught me that just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be nice,” he liked to say, and boy did he ever take the lesson to heart.

The world seems like a lesser place when someone like Arnold Palmer dies. No other athlete ever has had, or ever will have, the uplifting and transcendent impact on his/her sport that Arnold Palmer did. He got me into golf (the only sport I’ve ever been good at), and by doing so, he gave me a bond with my father that lasted a lifetime. Most of all, though, he showed me (and the world) how to be great at something and do it with grace and style and humility.

RIP Arnie. I don’t hit the links much anymore, but the next time I do, I may even have an “Arnold Palmer” in your memory. But please forgive me if I opt for a Rolling Rock (which used to be made in your hometown) instead.


3 thoughts on “Ruminations on THE Arnold Palmer

  1. Excellent tribute. As you know, I love the sport of golf, and your piece is among my favorites I’ve read in the last day or so. Probably because you seamlessly folded a beverage critique into it. :) Latrobe’s finest and 18 holes are on me next time I’m in town.

  2. Damn. First time I vehemently disagree with you. I LOVE fresh iced tea with fresh lemon and no sugar. Spectacular American drink. Fresh and light and crisp, nearly free of calories and carbs and fat. Utterly refreshing and delicious. John I worship your work and cannot wait for the 2017 Eating Las Vegas. But damn you are wrong on iced tea!

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