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Golf world gathers to recall Arnold Palmer

Jack Nicklaus speaks during a memorial service in Latrobe, Pa., for Arnold Palmer, who died last week at 87.

Associated Press

Jack Nicklaus speaks during a memorial service in Latrobe, Pa., for Arnold Palmer, who died last week at 87.

LATROBE, Pa. — A farewell to the King turned somber when Jack Nicklaus, his voice cracking as a large tear formed in his left eye, urged the elite and the everyman to remember how Arnold Palmer touched their lives and "please don't forget why."

"I hurt like you hurt," Nicklaus said. "You don't lose a friend of 60 years and (not) feel an enormous loss."

The service Tuesday at Saint Vincent College in Palmer's hometown was filled with just as much laughter and warmth from stories of the most significant figure in modern golf. Nearly 1,000 golf dignitaries from around the world, referred to by former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem as the "elite battalion of Arnie's Army," crammed into the basilica.

Some 4,000 others headed to remote sites across the college to watch. Long lines of traffic formed two hours before the service.

Palmer died Sept. 25 in Pittsburgh at 87 as he was preparing for heart surgery. His family had a private funeral Thursday and asked that a public service be held after the Ryder Cup so no one would be left out.

"We were looking down at the air strip and the fog just suddenly lifted," Ernie Els said after landing in one of several private jets that descended on Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe. "This is a beautiful day. We've all met different people in life. He was a man who didn't change. It didn't matter if you cut the grass or you were a president. He was the same with everybody. He was just … he was the man."

Palmer won 62 times on the PGA Tour, including seven major championships. He inspired the modern Grand Slam by going to the British Open in 1960 and making it important in the eyes of Americans again. He was a captain twice in the Ryder Cup, and the gold trophy the Americans won Sunday at Hazeltine sat on a table for guests to see as they took their seats.

But this service was more about the lives Palmer touched than the tournaments he won.

In the large portrait at the front of the stage, Palmer wasn't holding a golf club or a trophy. It was just the King and that insouciant grin that made everyone feel like they were friends, even if they had never met.

"Have there been better golfers? Perhaps, but not many. Has anyone done more for the game? No one has come even close," former R&A chief Peter Dawson said. "Is there a finer human being? I haven't met one yet."

Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and a few other members of the U.S. team were there. So was the generation before them, Tom Watson and Curtis Strange, Lee Trevino and Mark O'Meara. Dozens of others were there, along with the heads of every major golf organization.

Among the more poignant tributes was Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour.

"There wasn't a big difference between the man you saw on TV and the man we knew at home," Saunders said.

Saunders grew up calling him "Dumpy" because that's what his older sister said when trying to call him "Grumpy." The name stuck.

That's how Saunders had Palmer listed in his phone, and he used that number more times than he could remember.

"He was the king of our sport," Nicklaus said. "And he always will be."

Golf world gathers to recall Arnold Palmer 10/04/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 4, 2016 8:39pm]
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