It was a sad day in sports Sunday, losing Florida Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez at the age of 24 and then later the man simply known as “The King.”
Fernandez was still forging his legacy, but “The King” had concisely constructed his legend over 50 years. Arnold Palmer was 87 years old when he passed. He won his first major on the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament in 1958. He went on to win three more Masters and seven majors in all.
He had 95 professional wins, including 62 on the PGA Tour, which places him fifth all-time.
“He was dubbed the king, but he was a prince,” former AdVantage News writer and longtime golf writer and photojournalist L. Allen Klope said.
Palmer is an iconic sports figure nationally with what he did on the links and for his partnership in IMG Golf, revolutionizing the way sports are marketed overall, but he also left his fingerprints on Alton.
Palmer formed a 40-plus year friendship with Spencer T. Olin, son of Olin Corp. founder Franklin W. Olin, until his death in 1995 and left his touches on Alton by designing the Spencer T. Olin Golf Course inside Gordon Moore Park.
His influence remains when you visit the golf course today.
“I think he’s left a lot here,” Spencer T. Olin general manager Mary Campbell said. “If you come in and see the pictures, we have at least 60-70 pictures of him at different events and different venues. It’s more than a little bit (here in Alton) and unfortunately with him passing it’s going to bring the golfing community a little closer.”
Spencer T. Olin is honoring the man that fathered the course this week by donating $5 per every round played to a hospital in Florida that Palmer had connections with through his charitable works. That lasts through Sunday.
“I’d like to have some kind of presentation, call the RiverBend Growth Association, to show the checks that we’re sending so people know that it is valid and we are giving to his charity and to tell them thank you,” Campbell said.
Tad Middleton, donor relations consultant for Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, remembers Palmer’s influences in Alton vividly. Middleton worked at Spencer T. Olin from 1990-96 with the outside staff and inside the pro shop.
He remembers Palmer visiting the golf course in 1991 to participate in a charitable event for the Greater Alton Area Golf for Youth. Palmer joined an unforgettable foursome that included Roxana High graduate and James Naismith Hall of Famer Harry “The Horse” Gallatin, former Cardinal pitcher Joe Magrane and Cardinal legend and MLB Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial.
“I was so impressed with Mr. Palmer and Stan Musial,” Middleton said. “They didn’t turn down anyone for an autograph. They must have signed hundreds of autographs throughout the day. I was amazed at all the time they took to make those people feel special.”
Palmer had a knack of making everyone around him feel special.
“He spent time talking to all of us and I vividly remember that Pat Keith was on the (Spencer T. Olin) staff and how tall and big Pat was, he looked up at him and joked with him a little bit,” Middleton said. “He made everybody feel at ease, like, ‘I’m just a regular guy.’”
Keith, the current Roxana High head football coach, got the opportunity to be around Palmer a few times, including one special day in 1992.
“I worked (at Spencer T. Olin) for 9 or 10 summers and met him then, but in ‘92 there was the PGA Championship at Bellerive and at the time Steve Johnson was the head pro at Spencer T., so his son Scott and myself went over to pick him up at Bellerive after a practice round,” Keith said. “We went in the clubhouse and there wasn’t anyone there except Arnold and Steve, so we got to sit down and eat lunch with Arnold Palmer. It was a great experience, a very memorable experience.
“I made a lot of friends up there at Spencer T. It was a great honor working for the Arnold Palmer management company. He was a great man and we took a lot of pride being part of that company.”
Middleton and Keith both recalled a comical story surrounding a Palmer visit to Spencer T. Olin in the early ‘90s, too.
He flew into St. Louis Regional Airport in Bethalto and Johnson picked him up in his Lincoln town car and brought him to the course. They drove in near the maintenance shed, which was then hole No. 5 and has since switched to No. 14. There was a pathway cutting to the clubhouse and the staff was there to greet him.
“This foursome came up to tee off and one guy said, ‘Wow, we’ve got a gallery checking us out,’” Middleton said. “This guy had no clue what was going on. Just before they teed off, here came this Lincoln Town Car shooting down the cart path and one guy made the remark, ‘Who do they think they are, Arnold Palmer?’ We all started laughing and the town car pulls up and out pops Mr. Palmer. The one guy came over and told the story and Mr. Palmer was chuckling. He thought that was the funniest thing.”
Klope first met him in 1966 at the Masters while on assignment for a golf magazine and had several encounters with him after that. His most memorable was during the late ‘80s at Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, which ended up having a profound effect on Alton.
“He was there for a charity event for a hospital in St. Louis,” Klope said. “They contracted with him for a three-year appearance. I sat on a golf cart with him for about a half an hour and told him that Dr. Gordon Moore was interested in someone to design a golf course and he said he was most certainly interested. He wrote down his name and phone number and said, ‘Have Dr. Moore call me.’”
The rest was history, as he designed what is considered a premiere public golf course in the Midwest in Spencer T. Olin. The course’s highlight is playing host to the 1999 U.S. Men’s Amateur Public Links Championship, which was televised on ESPN.
For a man who called Latrobe, Penn., home for his entire life, Palmer left a lasting impression on Greater Alton and many with heavy hearts this week. He will never be forgotten.
“He was an icon in his sport and the sporting world in general,” Keith said. “He was the godfather of golf.”
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