The passing this week of golf – and sports – icon Arnold Palmer raises the question: Who carries the torch from here?
No question about it, there will be only one Arnold Palmer, but as we lament the loss of one of the most iconic people in golf history, it’s poignant to reflect on how the game will now look without him.
The charisma, the flamboyance, the cavalier style of play and the way galleries adored Palmer are traits unlikely to be collectively repeated again in the same fashion, yet golf still needs such a resonating figurehead – perhaps now more than ever in an era of homogenised touring professionals.
Today’s fleet of wealthy tour pros have Palmer to thank for their hefty bank balances. An oft-repeated line through the years suggests that, “For every dollar a professional golfer makes on tour, 50 cents is thanks to Arnold Palmer,” such was the endorsement legacy he bestowed upon golf and sport. That 50-cent figure might have come out as 10, 20, 60 or more over time, but the sentiment remains the same: Palmer is sports endorsement deals.
And while Palmer and his business acumen lent money to his peers, he kept the common touch through his innate ability to connect with people. Even amid a sea of adoring fans, it is said that the King always had a way of making you feel like the only person around, even during a brief moment of interaction.
So who within the current crop should replace him in this most pedestalled of positions? Phil Mickelson, that’s who.
Who else fits the Palmer mould of swashbuckling – even reckless – play? Who else has a mind for financial deals coupled with a still-relevant playing career? Who else speaks their mind so openly on a range of subjects and keeps people listening to every syllable? And, name another American player fans love more.
It’s Phil’s torch to bear and – for now – his alone.
Greg Norman might have been a logical successor in this role had he still held a place on the fairways. But the Great White Shark hasn’t been spotted at a tournament in eons. Now, almost half a generation of golf followers wouldn’t remember seeing Norman in action. So his window has passed.
Mickelson, even at 46, has ample time left in the game competitively and remains one of the top-20 exponents. His autograph-signing sessions are legendary and the anecdotal evidence indicates that while he isn’t every player’s cup of tea in the locker room, the fans worship him and his peers at very least respect him.
There is, however, one caveat to be issued here. If Mickelson truly wants to emulate Palmer, he needs far more stamps in his passport. Spending a fortnight in Britain each July and then elsewhere in Europe every other September does not a global golfer make. Where Mickelson might possess the charm and style of fellow American Palmer, he needs to borrow from Gary Player’s global golf ambassadorship in order to get even close to touching Arnie’s iconic greatness.
The notion that it would essentially take two sets of qualities to replace him only further enhances the sheer magnitude of Palmer’s legacy.