PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Jay Monahan never said his first priority as PGA Tour commissioner was for every player to be just like Arnold Palmer.
That would be asking for the impossible.
Consider one of the many remarkable stories in Tom Callahan’s book, “Arnie.” Two men from Chicago, Jeff Roberts and Wally Schneider, were serving in Vietnam and wrote to Palmer seeking help with their bunker shots (when they weren’t shooting from bunkers). Palmer not only replied, he sent two sand wedges and golf balls, along with his sincere wishes for a safe and speedy return.
Roberts went to the Western Open when he got home. He waited for Palmer outside the clubhouse at Olympia Fields and told him that he was one of the soldiers to whom Palmer had sent the sand wedges in Vietnam.
“Are you Jeff or Wally?” Palmer said to him.
Monahan’s eyes lit up when he heard the story. His own memories of the King date to 1996 when Monahan was an event planner at EMC and was sent to the Skills Challenge the company sponsored because no one else wanted to go. Palmer was playing for the first time. Monahan was seated next to him.
“He invited me to play his golf course. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the room,” Monahan said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Nearly two decades later, after Tim Finchem appointed Monahan his deputy commissioner, Finchem took him to see Palmer at his home in Latrobe, Pa. Palmer had a medical issue come up a few days earlier but insisted they not cancel their visit. He spent two hours talking about his competitive days, the formation of the PGA Tour, anything they wanted to know. Monahan went home to Florida and wrote it all down.
He was at Palmer’s memorial service last October, struck by how eight speakers could stitch together a life well played. So when Monahan took over as commissioner in January and met with reporters, the first question was his priority for the year.
“I would say when we leave on Dec. 31st, it’s to make Mr. Palmer proud,” he said. “So we can look up to heaven and feel great about what we accomplished.”
Halfway through the year, Monahan gives the tour a grade of “incomplete,” but only because it’s still July and “we have more work to do.”
But he has seen enough to believe the tour is on the right track.
Monahan saw it in Bob Steber, who celebrated 50 years as a volunteer at the Farmers Insurance Open and caddied in the first tournament in 1952.
“That’s one moment in time that Arnold would have a big smile on his face, to see a man sustain that level of commitment to the game,” he said.
He saw it at the Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas, when Dustin Johnson walked between rows of fans on his way to the next tee with both arms outstretched to slap hands with them. That didn’t stop even as the match momentarily turned against him.
Monahan noticed Xander Schauffele walk off the 18th green after a birdie that led to his first PGA Tour victory at The Greenbrier Classic and hand his glove to a kid. He saw Brooks Koepka win his first major at the U.S. Open and sign autographs “well into the night.”
Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to win the Travelers Championship and reacted by slinging his club and body-bumping his caddie, a moment shared around the world on social media. It was pure passion. Imagine if social media had been around when Palmer slung his visor after winning the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.
Some things about Palmer can’t be copied by anyone.
“It’s really hard to articulate,” Monahan said, “but I’ve never in my life watched someone be able to connect with such a diverse group of people and always stay in the moment. That’s one of the greatest gifts he’s given anyone.”
(Another story from “Arnie” was Bob Hope’s first impression of Palmer: “I knew a little something about star power. And he had it. Without trying, he made you smile.” And this from former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois: “He was about the only thing Democrats and Republicans had in common.”)
Monahan shared his priority with the players at a mandatory meeting in January at Torrey Pines. The message was to make Arnie proud. From the two hours they spent in Latrobe, Monahan recognized that Palmer saw himself as a caretaker of the game.
That’s not too much to ask of anyone else, is it?
“If nothing else, if you think about that, we will have grown and gotten to a better place as a tour and as a game,” Monahan said.
One memory that sticks with Monahan was joining Finchem and Palmer for their annual lunch in 2015 during the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Palmer had his usual fare — a hot dog and french fries. Rory McIlroy, at the time No. 1 in the world, was playing the event for the first time and came over to the table to tell Palmer he was happy to be there and that Bay Hill was in great shape. Palmer immediately flipped the conversation to offer McIlroy anything he needed, whether it was lodging, tickets, even ice cream.
“Rory said: ‘Mr. Palmer, thanks to you, I have everything I could ever need in my life. I’m all set,’” Monahan said. “Arnold teared up. It was a pretty cool moment.”