Everybody has a favorite Arnold Palmer memory.
Maybe it's that time you followed him at a tournament. At one point, he was seemingly in trouble behind a mammoth oak tree, only to hitch up his slacks, take a mighty lash with a 5-iron and land his ball on the green. To this day, you swear he looked right at you afterward and offered a knowing wink.
Or maybe it's when you ran into him at a restaurant. You didn't want to interrupt, but the man had always been your hero. So you nervously approached and asked for an autograph, only to have that chance encounter turn into him regaling you with a 15-minute story about the good ol' days.
Or maybe you're not even much into golf. Maybe you only know him because a family member was cared for at the hospital bearing his name. Or because he contributed to your favorite charity. Or just because those old black-and-white pictures make him look like the coolest guy who ever lived.
Everybody has a favorite Arnold Palmer memory, because he impacted every single one of us.
And now, after hearing of his death at the age of 87, these memories come rushing back.
He wasn't just a brilliant golfer; he was the man who ushered the game into the television era. He wasn't just an icon of the sport; he grew to become one of the world's most recognizable figures.
The word legend is thrown around too often these days, but Palmer epitomized the very definition. He founded his own hospital, flew his own plane and concocted his own drink -- and that was just in his spare time.
Most of the favorite memories about the man fondly known as The King are personal interactions. People meeting him, speaking with him, taking photos with him, receiving his meticulously penned signature on a hat or ticket stub. And of course, being a member of Arnie's Army.
My favorite memory is a private one. So private that it includes only him, alone.
It was two years ago. I'd played Palmer's beloved Bay Hill course with some buddies, even stopping at the turn to get a photo with him, like so many thousands of others had done before. After the round, we had lunch and I wasn't in a rush to leave, so I headed back out to the practice green.
Within a few minutes, some 50 yards away, a cart pulled up to the far right side of the driving range, two bags of clubs strapped into the back, as always.
This wasn't the range where he'd developed his game as a youngster. No, that was some 1,000 miles north at Latrobe Country Club, where his father had been the head professional and superintendent and where Arnold, even recently, would sometimes sneak his lunch down to the locker room and eat on a bench near the showers while swapping stories with his old buddies.
He came to Bay Hill later in life, once he was already a champion and an icon. He didn't just hit golf balls on that range. He taught -- and yes, he might have even learned a little.
Just six months ago, while playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his grandson, Sam Saunders, recalled a time when a lesson on that range turned into so much more. When a few people stopped by to say hello, Palmer took the opportunity to needle him a bit.
"He was going to try and embarrass me," Saunders recalled. "He wanted to toughen me up; he wanted to make me feel uncomfortable. So he said, 'If this boy will just listen to me, he'll be all right. Otherwise he's going to end up driving a tractor.' Then he puts that big giant fist right in my face and said, 'What are you gonna do, boy, if I pop you in the nose?' I got right back in his face and said, 'I'll knock you out, old man.' And he got tears in his eyes. I knew that's exactly what he wanted. He was testing me."
This wasn't the range where he honed his game; it was the range where he'd tried to hold onto it for as long as he could.
On that day two years ago, just before his 85th birthday, I watched as the familiar figure pulled up in his cart. Using a club as a cane, he ambled over to a spot on the range and moved a single ball from a pile closer to him. He took a few practice swings, then settled in to his stance, reached back and swung through it.
I'd love to tell you that the ball soared high into the mid-afternoon sky, his mighty lash no different than a half-century earlier. It didn't. It traveled no more than 100 yards or so. Palmer watched it, and shook his head. He checked his grip. He moved another ball closer. He swung again. Same result.
Again and again, maybe 20 times, he hit shots with that club, shaking his head in disappointment after each one. This was a man years removed from tournament golf. He wasn't preparing for any big competition, didn't need to get his game in shape for anything coming up.
There he was, though. Still trying. Still digging for secrets in the dirt. Still hoping that somehow, on the precipice of turning 85, the magic would return and he'd start hitting towering shots down the range once again, reliving the glory days of his youth.
The coolest man in the room. The champion, the icon. The philanthropist and pilot and drink inventor. The man who accomplished so much in his life, still wanted more. He wanted to hit that little white ball the way he'd once done.
When he was finished, Palmer used the club as a cane, easing himself into the driver's seat of the cart. He sat there for a few minutes, every once in a while looking back toward the range and shaking his head again. Finally, he drove away, unsatisfied with his game. Unsatisfied with himself.
That will always be my favorite Arnold Palmer memory. Everybody has one.