I strolled into the interview room at Bay Hill for Arnold Palmer’s press conference with a mission in mind. You see, I spent the last two weeks speaking with players and asking them for anecdotes on the first time they shook the King’s hand. I had never had the pleasure/privilege, but that was going to change on Wednesday morning.
When his presser ended (which was enjoyable and engaging, per usual — I could listen to the man speak for hours and hours), I
rushed walked briskly to the front of the room. Mr. Palmer had stepped off the mini-stage, where he was quickly surrounded by a flock of reporters.
Bob Bubka and Alex Miceli beat me to him. They had prearranged an exclusive interview with him for their radio show, “The Grill Room.” But there was a ten-second window while they were getting things in order and I managed to make eye contact with Mr. Palmer. He smiled and gave me his signature wink. Perfect!
I was definitely nervous, but I wasn’t going to pass up the golden opportunity. Besides, I didn’t have time to think.
I awkwardly extended my hand and said something like, “Hi, Mr. Palmer, I’m Stephanie Wei and I just wanted to say thanks for everything you…” Then I was cut off, but that didn’t matter — I had shaken Arnie’s hand. (What I was going to say was pretty unoriginal, but I was going to thank him for everything he’s done for the game and continues to do, etc.)
I, along with 20 other media-types and PR flaks, stuck around to listen to him speak with Bubka and Miceli. When it was over, he turned to his right, where I was standing, and handed me a red pin (pictured above) with “Sam’s Soldiers” inscribed on it. He said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Do you know who that is?”
For a moment, I lost the ability to form words. I was speechless. Somehow — thank goodness — I managed to recover gracefully and quickly. I replied, “Yep, indeed I do. I actually just met him yesterday.”
Of course, we were talking about his grandson Sam Saunders, who is playing this week on a sponsor’s invite, but also has full status on the Nationwide Tour this season.
Arnie smiled and got in one last wink before he was whisked away.
My first real Arnie interaction (if you can even call it that) was brief, but like the 15-20 pros I spoke to about their first time meeting the King, I won’t ever forget it. If you haven’t already, check out the anecdotes from guys like, world No. 1 Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington, Steve Stricker, Charl Schwartzel, Adam Scott, Graeme McDowell, and more.
My favorite? Well, it’s hard to pick just one. Schwartzel’s is classic, but it’s tough to beat Greg Chalmer’s story. He couldn’t remember the first time he shook Arnie’s hand, but he definitely remembered the first time he wanted to:
Greg Chalmers: “I can remember the first time I wanted to shake his hand. In 1994 I won the French Amateur, and part of winning that was you got to play in the 25th anniversary of the Lincoln Trophy, which at the time on the European Tour was an event with 60 players only. I had arrived from Australia at 5 a.m. on Monday morning and I was staying on the 17th hole, so I played the 17th and 18th holes. I was an amateur carrying my own bag, and it was 7:30 in the morning. There was one man on the tee, and it was Arnold Palmer. I didn’t have the cojones to ask him for a game of golf. I thought he might have figured it out when every green I didn’t putt, I just picked up my ball and ran to the next tee and stood there to watch him. That’s probably one of my actual regrets. I know he’d be the kind of guy that would have said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for a game.’ I can’t say I remember the first time I shook his hand, but I certainly remember the first time I wish I did.”
(AP Photo/John Raoux)