By Ann Liguori
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The service to celebrate the extraordinary life of Arnold Palmer was as powerfully moving, personal, upbeat and patriotic as the legendary golfer, himself.
Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, died on Sept. 25 at age 87. He was remembered and honored on Tuesday at Saint Vincent Basilica in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a cathedral where Palmer often attended mass.
The program, titled “Arnold Palmer: A Life Well Played,” started with Captain Pete Luster, co-pilot of N1AP, circling the Basilica on a Cessna C750. Once the top luminaries in golf were seated, from members of the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team that included captain Davis Love III, Bubba Watson, (one of the vice captains), Phil Mickelson, and Rickie Fowler, to Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, to name a few, the service opened with a Coast Guard color guard salute and a brass quintet playing a booming rendition of “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland.
A number of special guest speakers shared engaging stories about Palmer’s multi-faceted life, mixed in with a lovely musical program that included country music artist Vince Gill singing two selections, a string quartet playing “America the Beautiful” and the U.S. Coast Guard brass quintet playing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Charles Mechem, the former commissioner of the LPGA, who became an advisor to Palmer, served as master of ceremonies, and encouraged all not to grieve, but to smile and celebrate Palmer, as he would have wanted.
The guest speakers included Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, a PGA Tour pro; PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem; golf legend, rival and friend Jack Nicklaus; CBS Sports commentator Jim Nance; and LPGA Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam. Each speaker touched on the many aspects of Palmer’s life — his legend as a golfer, his family, his passion for flying, his charismatic presence on and off the TV screen, his work promoting the game globally and his extensive charitable endeavors.
“We saw him in cut-off sweat pants and a tee shirt,” Saunders shared, “and I can tell you there is not a big difference from the man you saw on TV and the man we saw at home.”
Saunders said no matter what his grandpa was doing or where he was, he would always want to talk with him.
“He’d always take my phone call and he’d ask me, ‘where are you?’ I’d say ‘I’m at a tourney, where are you?'” Saunders recalled.
“And my grandpa would tell me, “I’m with the President.'”
“The president of what?” Saunders would ask.
“The U.S.,” Palmer replied.
“Why are you answering your phone?’ I’d ask.”
“I want to talk to you,” Arnold said.
Palmer, who won 62 PGA Tour titles and seven major championships, played on seven Ryder Cup team, captaining two of them.
Royal & Ancient chief Peter Dawson, one of the featured speakers, asked: “Have there been better golfers? Perhaps, but not many. Has anyone done more for the game? No one has come even close. Is there a finer human being? I haven’t met one yet.”
After the service, as all gathered to watch, Luster honored Palmer with several more fly-overs. The last one zoomed straight up into the clouds and disappeared.
Arnold Palmer may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten.
Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori