This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Senior golfer John Jacobs looked around the first tee of Park Meadows Country Club and marveled about the gallery assembled for his threesome.
"I'd like to thank everybody for coming to watch Andy North and me play," Jacobs said.
Everybody laughed. Jacobs knew they came to see Arnold Palmer on that August morning in 2002, the last time the circuit now known as PGA Tour Champions staged an event in Park City.
Senior professional golf in Utah lived and died with Palmer, who passed away Sunday at age 87. Memories of him forever will resonate with people such as tour player Bruce Summerhays, longtime Jeremy Ranch pro Lanny Nielsen and Bryan Naugle, director of the Park City tournament. They'll remember a gracious person, far beyond his golf achievements, and a friend who "always wanted people to feel important," Naugle said.
I'll remember how the senior version of PGA Tour-brand golf came to Utah in 1982 simply because of Palmer's ties to Jeremy Ranch as the course's co-architect. And he did everything he could to support the event until the end, when it was dropped from the calendar because of sponsorship issues after a 21-year run.
"He was always there for me," Naugle said from Houston, where he now runs the Insperity Invitational and in recent years brought in Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and others for a Greats of Golf scramble event as a highlight of the tournament week.
The original Senior PGA Tour was created soon after Palmer turned 50, and not coincidentally. When he came along in the mid-1990s after a career as a club pro, Summerhays understood the tour was built for the big names not golfers like him, who broke through in the qualifying process. Yet Palmer treated him well from the start of his successful tour career, once complimenting his fitness by saying, "I didn't know they were allowing 40-year-olds to play on the tour."
Paired with Palmer in a tournament in Minnesota, Summerhays aggressively hit a driver on a par-5 hole with water in play, and so did Palmer. And then Harry Toscano laid up with a 4-iron off the tee, causing Palmer to walk over to Summerhays and shake his head in disgust. "Arnie was Arnie," Summerhays said. "That's who he was. He was going to go for it, no matter what was out there."
One day in New Jersey, Palmer was about to tee off in the group behind Summerhays. Palmer praised his perfect drive around the corner of the dogleg-left first hole. As Summerhays rubbed Palmer's shoulders, they talked about how Palmer's wife, Winnie, slowly was dying of cancer.
Summerhays walked down the fairway, and it hit him: This was Arnold Palmer, and an unknown golfer from Utah had become close to The King.
Nielsen maintained his friendship with Palmer long after those Jeremy Ranch days. Nielsen traveled the world filming golf courses for video games and once visited Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge on a rainy day in Florida. When the skies cleared, Nielsen and his wife, Claudia, joined Palmer for nine holes. Their lasting memory of the day is of Palmer inviting a 12-year-old boy to play through, and personally driving him to the next tee.
"That's the kind of guy he was," Nielsen said.
When Naugle was trying to save the Park City event, he adopted a Modified Stableford scoring format with the motive of persuading Palmer to compete at age 72, without having to post a standard score. As Naugle said, "The only person who cared what he shot was him. Everybody just wanted to see him play."
So Palmer came to Park City for the fifth time in seven years. In the first round, he surprised himself by shooting better than his age, with a 71 in traditional scoring. "I had fun today," he said. "It's been a long time since I played 18 holes and had fun."
Palmer faded in the last two rounds, but his aura remained intact. Hardly anyone who visited Park Meadows that weekend could tell you that Morris Hatalsky won Utah's final senior tour event, but they will remember how Arnold Palmer played there. That's his legacy. Those who knew him well say Arnie never was one of those people who tried to take over a room, but it always happened anyway.