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Why everyone loved Arnold Palmer, 'The King'

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A meeting with The King in his hometown near the end of his life reinforced everything I'd heard about a great man.

Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports

Just 13 days before he passed, Arnold Palmer sat in his home office, warmly accepting unknown strangers into in his private space. He had just turned 87 two days prior, but he sat there wanting to meet more new people, taking time to narrate the stories behind all the different photos on his wall, apologizing for the messy desk, cracking jokes, and delivering a couple perfectly timed curses.

This was a chance meeting and it was the first time I had ever met Palmer. We were just supposed to walk around his office cottage looking at some of his most valuable possessions, honors, and trophies, but not actually go into the separate room that was his office. That was a different threshold and "Mr. Palmer is resting," said his friend and assistant. So we quietly walked around, examining the artifacts that were just the bare-bones outline of a legendary life. Then came the quiet murmur that Mr. Palmer was up and around and why don't you come into his office.

It was a short meeting, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, although he wanted everyone to hang around longer as his assistants pushed him to move on to the more important places he had to be. I won't claim some grand takeaway about the man's incredible life from this short meeting, other than to say he was immeasurably warm and personable to some random schlubs when he did not need to be. I was nervous as hell when the office tour quickly transitioned to this possible meeting with The King ... "Oh shoot? Really? OK then, here we go, why are my legs a little jello-y and my steps more deliberate?" And then as we come around the corner he affably bellowed out, "heyyyyyy guysss, c'monnnnn in" and everything stabilized. I was still scared to death I might say something stupid but "Mr. Palmer" was not some intimidating inquisitor -- he wanted us to shoot whatever back at him and for however long we wanted to.

I met The King at the end of a full and incredibly fortunate day in his home, Latrobe, Pa., playing a charity golf outing to benefit the children's hospital that he built and dedicated to his wife. I wandered around all of Latrobe and Latrobe -- the town, the country club, all of it -- is Palmer's home. What struck me most was just how nothing had seemed to change and it was frozen in a time when Palmer ascended to become the most ubiquitous athlete in the country. Palmer was the son of the greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club, and growing up he was not allowed in the clubhouse so he spent those years caddying and doing some of the service work around the course. Later, he'd just buy the whole damn club, along with homes and barns and warehouses all around the town.

None of it changed. Palmer acquired all these properties and kept them mostly as they were. The homes he purchased around the course stayed these modest, one-story ramblers. The country club was the opposite of something you might expect from an international icon who had made hundreds of millions of dollars and was still making tens of millions of dollars decades after his playing days ($42 million in 2014!). The course and club were vintage. Nothing had been re-made or dressed up with modern luxuries or over-developed. The club's pool looked like some 1960s motel pool out of a Mad Men episode.

latrobe

This was Palmer's home -- the entire town, from the clubhouse to the bar to his office to the memorabilia barn -- and where he spent most of his time. He had all the money in the world to do anything with all this property. But there was zero pretension about the club or a hint of gaudiness in the entire town. There was no towering mansion or unnecessarily ornate compound. It was the kind of unassuming, egalitarian setting that a more insecure wealthy global star would not abide in the sunset of his life. It was clearly how he wanted it.

This was the first great celebrity superstar in sports, responsible for the launch of IMG and the trailblazer for athletes who would make millions from their endorsing and earning powers for decades to come. This Latrobe background helped him bring a stuffy country club game to the masses. That background and appeal to the masses, as well as his DGAF grip-it-and-rip-it style, was delivered to the people far and wide with the rise of TV. Everyone wanted a piece of Palmer, either as an endorser or a friend. And he gave them time until the very end.

I'm of the age that I did not really get to see Palmer play much golf, but just the chance to go to his hometown still carried the weight of an opportunity of a lifetime. I've watched him hit those ceremonial tee shots at Augusta National and play a little bit at Bay Hill. The rest are highlights from many years ago. I heard stories and the exhortations from elders that, yes, Palmer was not the greatest golfer of all time, but the most important golfer of all time. I can only listen to the anecdotes and look at old photos, but it's so quickly discernible that he was the swag king of the sporting universe.

He still looked fresh as hell into his 80s. And while I did not watch the style and flair up close live, the magnitude and awe, as if I did have that decades-long personal history with him, were there when he put his imprimatur on something or he talked. It's why one of the most powerful moments in my years watching this sport was not a shot or a triumph, but just Arnold Palmer reflecting last year at what was his last trip to the Open Championship.

We can lionize people in death, a time when we're supposed to say nice things. That will appropriately happen when a person of this stature passes. People you trust and respect would always tell you about Palmer's kindness, openness, and generosity. They would bash you with the cliched, roll-your-eyes term "blue collar." You accepted it all but maybe there was a tinge of doubt that these were people mythologizing and saying overly nice things about what was a great man, the most impactful in the sport's history.

Then you see it all for yourself 13 days before his death. I'm not sure what I expected driving into the hills of Pennsylvania, but it wasn't the town, country club, and home that I saw. And right there matching the unpretentious setting was the engaging main character responsible for it, a legendary athlete and marketing icon still willing to have time with random strangers at the end of his life.