What Really Matters: by Dan Ashley
A great American and one of my all-time favorite heroes has died at the age of 87. Arnold Palmer lived an extraordinary life of triumph and accomplishment.
He was a fierce and dashing competitor on the golf course and a beloved pitchman off it. He, almost single-handedly, made golf the popular modern-day sport it is today. They called him The King – but it was his everyman, common touch, and modest roots that made him popular and made golf seem cool. He also ushered in the era of the sports celebrity– making huge amounts of money from endorsements. To this day, he is still one of the highest-paid sports superstars in the country.
He even has a refreshing summer beverage named in his honor.
All of that is inspiring, but what made him a hero to me was the way he conducted himself in competition. A fierce competitor, but a gentleman, win or lose. That is the mark of a true champion.
I didn’t know much, if anything about Arnold Palmer, or golf for that matter, until the summer after I graduated from high school. Golf just wasn’t on my radar screen, my father didn’t play and neither did my friends so I had never been introduced to the sport until the summer of 1981. I was working at Swensen’s Ice Cream Factory in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina when I met a fellow working there as a short-order cook named Donnie. Donnie was a friendly guy making ends meet at the restaurant, where his wife also worked, while he was finishing dental school. He was a golfer and, as I would come to find out, a very good one.
Donnie played high school golf, then on his college team. His best friend and former college golf teammate was a caddy on the PGA tour. As we got to know each other that summer during our shifts, he began to tell me a lot about the game and then invited me to hit some balls at the range so he could introduce me to the game. I was immediately hooked. Hooked. In fact, it quickly began to occupy practically every waking thought. I was fascinated with every aspect of the sport, the physical and mental challenge, but something else made it magical.
The world golfers lived in, especially at the professional level, was utterly fascinating to me. Not because of the wealth and celebrity, not at all. What captured my attention and my imagination was what golf and golfers represent—a sense of sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, and a respect for tradition. It was all just thrilling to a young man still trying to define himself.
That first summer as a golfer I began watching and reading everything I could about the game, its history, and the people who play it for a living. Arnold Palmer, the King, was a major part of that education. His skill and swagger on the course was as mesmerizing as his charm and charisma was off it. All very inspirational for me as I readied myself to leave home for college. But What Really Matters is how he conducted himself throughout his life– with humility and dignity. Something to aspire to.
All of that, and that delicious blend of lemonade and iced tea that bears his name.
A great American.