I am a charter member of Arnie’s Army. I enlisted in 1962 and walked every Masters Tournament round with him until he retired from competition in 2004.
All of us who play this wonderful game of golf have on their bucket list shaking hands with Arnold Palmer. That moment came for me in 1993, not in Augusta, but at Palmer’s golf course Bay Hill in Florida. My wife, Cissy, and I had been married for only a short time when some friends invited us to play golf at Arnie’s course.
After a wonderful day, we were in the lounge when someone pointed out to me that Palmer was on the putting green. As I looked out the window I was surprised to see no one watching him practice. Certainly that was never the case at the Masters!
I sensed that this was my moment. I grabbed Cissy’s hand and said, “Let’s go!” We went out and stood watching Palmer experiment with a number of putters. As dusk was approaching, someone walked over to Palmer and said, “Supper time.” In order to leave the putting green area Palmer had to walk past us.
This was it – the moment. I thrust out my now-sweaty hand and said, “Hello, Mr. Palmer, I’m Joe Bowden from Augusta. I’m a member of your army.”
Arnie took my hand in his and the handshake was firm and sincere. He looked straight into my eyes and patted me on the shoulder. I babbled for a few seconds. I really can’t remember what I said, but he told me how much the people and fans in Augusta meant to him and how much he appreciated my support.
His manager interrupted our conversation, telling Palmer that he had to go. Arnie departed, and said he was looking forward to seeing me in April. As I watched him walk away, still not believing what had just happened, I turned and for the first time in those few previous seconds saw Cissy standing a few feet away. Reality came to call as I realized that I had not bothered to introduce my new bride, my soul mate! Being the saint that Cissy is, she has forgiven my selfishness. In time, Cissy would get to meet Arnie several times at Calvert’s Restaurant, where he went on Masters Week Tuesdays after the Champion’s Dinner at the club. There is a God!
Arnie will not be in Augusta this week. His final round is in the books. He is gone, but he left us with a “life well played.” Arnie was often described as charismatic, a word that implies a certain charm or magnetism. There is also a theological meaning for charisma, which is a gift of extraordinary grace given for the good of others. What gift did Arnie give to us? What did this swashbuckling hero of the links give to the masses?
From my perspective as a veteran in his army, I saw what he gave. He respected every person – every person. When he paused to sign an autograph or stopped for a few words with someone in the gallery, time stopped for those folks. Long after his competitive days were done, he spent every morning answering letters and signing autographs. He continued to connect.
What the years as a member of Arnie’s Army gave to me is similar to what Jesus gives all of us in the Gospel stories. Every human being is special. Every human being is unique. Every human being deserves the best we can give – ourselves. When we engage or connect with each other, that is a sacred moment of respect for both.
The life story of Arnie and the Gospel stories of Jesus invite us all to a way of connecting with each other, letting time stand still.
The Rev. Joe Bowden is the assisting priest at Church of the Good Shepherd.