Written from the heart
Arnold Palmer's signature, the most treasured in golf, represents the eternal connection between the legend and his fans
March 08, 2018
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Arnold Palmer's signature, the most treasured in golf, represents the eternal connection between the legend and his fans
It was Tuesday morning, 48 hours before the first tee shot would be launched at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. William McGirt, then a PGA TOUR rookie, had just made his way through the nearby autograph line and was now on Bay Hill's practice green with his caddie and coach.
Suddenly, a thick, meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder. McGirt, a bit startled, turned around. It was the tournament's namesake.
"I just want to say thank you," said Arnold Palmer.
A million thoughts suddenly ran through McGirt's head. Why would this golf legend, whose schedule no doubt was jam-packed that week, take the time to approach the world's 354th-ranked player? And why was he thanking him? McGirt had played the previous day in a Monday pro-am; perhaps that was the reason?
It wasn't. Arnie had just finished signing autographs for the same group of fans McGirt had accommodated earlier. Many of those fans had multiple autographs of players on their pin flags and caps. "Yours was the only signature I could read," Palmer told McGirt.
A sly smile crossed the rookie's face as he offered up a response.
"I remember some old guy said one time, if you're gonna take the time to sign it, at least make it legible," McGirt explained.
Arnie winked, gave the rookie a thumb's up, then went on his merry way, satisfied that another young golfer was faithfully adhering to his message.
Arnold Palmer's impact on the game of golf came in ways too numerous to count, and no aspect is too small to ignore. Yes, he may be remembered most for the way he changed golf in terms of marketing and advertising, or for how he brought the sport into the age of television, eventually helping to launch an entire network devoted to it. His golf course design, his business approach, his brand -- all provide lessons that generations of future pros will lean on.
But his impact on something as simple as an autograph is equally compelling. For Arnie, it wasn't just a scribble on a piece of paper, or a fleeting, forgettable, inconsequential moment. He viewed his autograph as a direct connection with his fans, a way to deliver a little part of himself, a chance to bond with those who had joined his Army.
That's why his signature became the most iconic in golf, possibly in all of sports, and joined his famous umbrella logo as the symbol of his brand. It's why legibility was so important. What was a name if it's not readable? Plus, legibility showed respect, showed the he cared enough to deliver his best effort. It was a sermon he had preached to others long before his brief encounter with McGirt at Bay Hill.
Peter Jacobsen learned the lesson soon after he joined the PGA TOUR in the late 1970s. He occasionally would play exhibitions with Palmer, and one day was signing a variety of programs and pin flags. Palmer saw the incomprehensible squiggly lines -- and was not impressed.
"That's a terrible signature," Arnie told Jacobsen. "It's way too sloppy. You can sign that on a check or a contract; you can slop it there. But if you're signing a piece of memorabilia, you sign it so people can read it."
Jacobsen immediately adjusted his signature. "I've taken that to heart my entire life," he says now. "I don't sign my name anymore. I draw my name, just like Arnold did. I take time so that it's legible."
Jacobson soon became one of Palmer's key disciples, spreading the message to other pro golfers. One day early in his career, Matt Kuchar heard Jacobsen retell the tale.
"That story gets passed down," Kuchar says, "and when it comes from Arnold Palmer, you go yeah, I need to make sure that when people get home, they know who signed it. That story came straight from Peter Jacobsen, and I've retold the story myself to others. I don't know if it's impacted anybody I told it to, but certainly when Peter told it to me, it had an effect."
Ernie Els didn't even need to hear the message; just seeing the actual product made him change his signature. In his younger days, Els used to sign his first name legibly, but let his last name trail off in an indecipherable flourish. After noting how tightly Arnold Palmer's signature was constructed, Els went for a similar look.
"I put the (first and last names) close together now, pretty much like Arnold," Els says. "And my signature is now a little bit more like his, up and down. I wouldn't say I tried to copy what he did, but I definitely saw what had to be done."
Palmer's message of legibility was not limited to simply the PGA TOUR, or even to other male golfers with whom he crossed paths. Over on the LPGA Tour, the players took notice. Jacobsen recalls playing an exhibition with Paula Creamer, and they were both making their way down the autograph line.
Suddenly, one of the fans told Creamer: "Paula, your signature is so nice."
Jacobsen had yet to tell her the legibility story. As it turns out, Arnie had already delivered it. "I was playing with Arnold Palmer in a tournament one time," Creamer told the fan, "and he told me to make sure people could read my name."
Palmer, however, may have saved his harshest criticism for his own family.
As a schoolboy, Sam Saunders had one dream -- to become a pro golfer, just like his famous grandfather. He knew if he fulfilled his dream, there might be requests for his autograph. So on the days when his mind wandered in class, he began practicing. "I wanted to have a cool, good-looking signature," Saunders recalled. "Something you can take pride in."
But when Grandpa Arnie saw the teenage Sam's signature, he felt compelled to impart the lesson.
"I looked at that autograph and I couldn't read it," Palmer recalled. "I didn't know what the hell it said. … Now when he gives an autograph, you can read it."
Palmer told that story back in 2008 during his pre-tournament press conference at Bay Hill. A year later, his grandson fulfilled his dream of turning pro. Soon after, Saunders realized the full impact of his grandfather's autograph.
"Obviously he had a lot of fans who wanted his signature," Saunders says, "but when I saw my peers and some of the caddies I've known out here for a long time wanting to get things signed by him -- well, he was so important to them. That's when you really realize how much his signature means to golf."
Golf's most important signature was developed in the mid-1930s in Rita Taylor's first-grade classroom at the old Baldridge School, about a mile up the hill from the Palmer family home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
That's where young Arnold Palmer learned to write, using his hands for something other than swinging a cut-down club, building model airplanes or playfully exchanging punches with the likes of childhood pals Bert Lambert or Berkey Shirey on the street outside his grandmother's home.
Up on Ms. Taylor's blackboard was a chart that showed how to write each letter of the alphabet, both capitalized and lower case. Fittingly, the handwriting system was named The Palmer Method.
No, it was not Arnie's first endorsement deal.
The Palmer Method was created by Austin N. Palmer, a native New Yorker who developed his fondness for penmanship after his family moved to New England. In 1888, he published the first edition of "Palmer's Guide to Muscular Movement Writing." After his method was introduced into the New York City school system in 1905, the rest of the classrooms across the country soon followed. By the time of his death in 1927, more than 25 million Americans had learned how to write using the Palmer Method. The numbers would continue to rise.
And so it was this method -- which focused more on arm movements rather than finger dexterity, thus creating a more rhythmic and readable flow -- that Arnold Palmer began forging his brand as a 6-year-old. The pronounced capital "A" and "P." Forward slant. Invisible line at the bottom so that all letters properly line up, even when he signed with an upward angle.
"You could slide a ruler directly under his signature," certified graphologist Kathi McNight noted in her handwriting blog soon after Arnie's death on Sept. 25, 2016. "In fact it appears that ALL of his handwriting would sit 'perfectly' on said ruler."
McNight added that the slant of Palmer's signature "reveals he was an extremely heart-centered soul. So if you were in his inner circle of family and friends, you were well loved by him. His writing tells me that in his lifetime, the highs were high and the lows were low and he led a richly emotional life. But the upslope baseline reveals he always brought his A-game whether he was playing golf or making iced tea AND lemonade mixed together!"
Cori Britt, the Vice President of Arnold Palmer Enterprises who had a 31-year working relationship with Palmer, describes the signature as "very reflective of him and his personality. He prided himself on keeping a neat appearance. Anything he ever did, he took the time to do it right. His signature was always neat and he did not rush through it.
"The care to which he gave his signature is a token of his appreciation for his fans and representative of how much he cared for them."
Back in the 1930s, young Arnie was not the only future superstar of his generation developing a legible signature. A little farther north, up in Saskatchewan, Canada, a junior hockey player named Gordie Howe -- just over a year older than Palmer - would one day own the most distinguished and legible signature of his sport.
Howe also shared the same perspective as Palmer - respect your fans by giving them a readable autograph. Other athletes of that same generation did the same; just look at the signatures of baseball players such as Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle.
Andy McGowan once worked with Howe while interning with the Hartford Whalers, and recently began working with Arnold Palmer Enterprises. Although McGowan never had the opportunity to deal directly with Palmer, his memories of Howe are eerily similar to Palmer's approach.
"One event I remember was a fan fest at the Hartford Civic Center," McGowan recalls. "Gordie was set up at a table and the line for his autograph and a photo was the longest - by far. And he sat there signing and posing for photos for hours until every person was taken care of. I remember being the last person there with Gordie, telling him that the signing session had ended and that we could pack up. He just smiled at me and kept on signing. He never wanted to disappoint the fans.
"And what I also remember was his meticulous signature. He took his time to make sure that it was legible for the fan. I once asked him about it and he told me that it was important that the fan be able to read his signature. If you look at it, it's very distinctive and legible. He was just that way. He knew how important the fans were to his success."
It's fitting that Palmer and Howe eventually crossed paths when Arnie was at Oakland Hills to accept an honorary membership. They posed for photos that one day would include both of their signatures.
It's also fitting that one day the next generation of Palmers would be sitting in a classroom, looking up at the blackboard and learning how to write using the same lessons as their dad.
"In elementary school, we were taught the same Palmer Method of writing as was he," recalls Amy Palmer Saunders, the youngest of Arnie's two girls. "It emphasized regimentation, discipline and character-building through good penmanship. In my early school years when the Palmer Method was introduced, I actually thought my father had written it, and he had to enforce what he expected of us."
Eventually, she would learn that it meant more than just a name on a piece of paper.
"Seeing my father's signature, for me, is more about what it came to represent," Amy says. "His signature defined his character. It was not simply an autograph."
It may be the biggest mystery in golf. Bigger than why some people still use "double eagle" instead of "albatross" or why we insist every putt breaks "toward the ocean."
How many autographs did Arnold Palmer sign in his 87 years on earth?
Given that he was golf's most tireless signer, and that he spent the better part of six decades under constant demand for his autograph, the number would seem astronomical. Perhaps even record-setting, if there was such a way to measure those things.
Recently, the good folks at Arnold Palmer Enterprises took an honest attempt at figuring out the number.
Vice-President Cori Britt, who was on the bag when Palmer played his 1,000 Tour event, estimates that in the course of a given tournament week -- between practice, pro-am and competition days -- Arnie would sign 400 autographs. Multiply that number by tournaments played, and we get 400,000.
Technically, Palmer made 1,053 starts between the PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions. Fifty of those starts, however, were at the Masters -- and the demand for Arnie's autograph that week was even higher. Call it 500 autographs per week times 50 starts, so 25,000.
Next are general items sent to his offices in Latrobe and Orlando to be signed. Between 1958 and 2016, the company estimates that Arnie averaged 250 items a week. Multiple that by the number of weeks, make some slight adjustments for variable weeks, and the number is 696,000.
Now time to add it up: 400,000 plus 25,000 plus 696,000.
The final total of autographs signed: 1,121,000.
If that number sounds conservative to you, that's OK with the team at Bay Hill. They didn't want to arrive at some outlandishly high figure that couldn't have been humanely possible to achieve without benefit of handwriting PEDs or robotic arms. They wanted a real estimate, one that Arnie could have legitimately achieved.
Of those million-plus Palmer autographs, 46 are owned by collector Joe Galiardi. He's the author of "Hooked on Autographs" and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest collection of autographed golf balls. He currently has balls signed by 417 different golfers, other sports personalities, celebrities and politicians (including the last nine presidents, starting with Richard Nixon).
He was more fan than collector when he attended a practice round at the inaugural Transamerica Senior Golf event at Silverado in Napa, California in 1989. Being from Western Pennsylvania, Galiardi just wanted his hero's autograph on a golf ball. So he waited for Arnold Palmer to finish his practice round (which Arnie did by draining a 25-foot putt for eagle).
"As Arnie walked off the 18th green, he was mobbed with autograph seekers, including me," Galiardi recalls. "When my turn came, I thought of introducing myself as a fellow Western Pennsylvanian but decided not to. I handed Arnie a Pebble Beach Golf Links logo ball and he willingly signed it. I thanked him and walked away with my first autographed golf ball. That eventful day marked a turning point in my life -- with that prized autograph, my fascinating new hobby was launched."
Just two of Galiardi's 46 Palmer autographs are on golf balls; because of his desire to sign legibly, Palmer was often frustrated by the dimpled balls that played havoc with his penmanship. Of the other 44 autographs, 18 are on books -- including the first book Palmer wrote in 1961 called "Hit It Hard" -- 12 are framed photographs, 10 are personal letters, three are on golf magazines, and the other is on the handle of a numbered Bulls Eye putter. Galiardi also obtained other Palmer signatures, donating those for charitable organizations such as the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Each of those 46 Palmer signatures has a story behind it. Galiardi's favorite came from 1995 when he attended the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf event in La Quinta, California at PGA West.
"Halfway through the tournament, I sat down on a grassy mound with five other unknown spectators waiting for Arnold Palmer to arrive at one of the tees," he says. "While the other players in his threesome headed for the tee, Arnie did something I've never seen done before in all of the PGA TOUR tournaments I attended. He came over to the six of us, shook our hands and thanked us for supporting the senior tournament. He made us feel like we were special.
"To me, that attention to his fans showed his rare trait of warmth and down-to-earth thoughtfulness. His caring and generous spirit is what made us love him."
The total number signed -- 1,121,000 -- is impressive. But it only hints at the true meaning of a Palmer signature.
GOING THE DISTANCE
The average Arnold Palmer signature, according to company officials, is 2-1/2 inches. If you multiply that by the 1,121,000 autographs he's estimated to have signed, here's how the total length of those autographs would translate in various distances.
Arnold Palmer was a fixture at Augusta National Golf Club, making a record 50 consecutive starts in the Masters. Autograph seekers eventually realized they could send their requests to the club, knowing that Arnie would see them upon his arrival each April. There were only a handful at first. Then in his later years, more and more requests came in.
After playing the Par-3 Contest on Wednesday, Arnie would retreat to the back porch of his cottage, going through his mail and fulfilling requests before placing the items in the provided return envelopes so that it could go out in the next day's mail.
Word eventually got out -- anybody who wanted Arnie's autograph only needed to send their items to Augusta National. The amount of mail that once could fit easily on a shelf in his locker was now being collected in big plastic tubs in his last few visits. Arnie knew he didn't have time to fulfill all those requests while on the back porch. So he had the dozen or so tubs shipped to his office, where he would endure some of the legendary signing sessions that would define his devotion to his fans.
Requests, of course, also came directly to Bay Hill and Latrobe. Those items, too, would be held and arranged for when Palmer found the time.
Surrounded by his staff, Palmer would work through a three- or four-hour session, averaging about six seconds for each signature. Balls, as mentioned above, were a bit troublesome. Books, especially the ones he had just written, were especially pleasing. For some reason, fans also sent in a lot of baseballs to sign.
Obviously, not all the items had honest intentions from his fans. Collectors seeking to profit off an Arnold Palmer signature would send in multiple items. Some would try to disguise their intentions; for instance, instead of sending a half-dozen pin flags in one large envelope, they would separate the pin flags in six different postings.
Whenever Britt pointed this out. Palmer just shrugged and kept signing
"He couldn't say no -- even when he knew the item was destined for eBay," Britt says.
The legendary signing sessions were not limited to his office.
"I remember playing golf with him," says actor/comedian/amateur golfer Bill Murray, "and he was grinding because he was getting ready for a Senior Open. So he was very focused on playing. But then he signed autographs for almost three full hours straight. … I mean, he was sitting down and they kept giving him short glasses of Rolling Rock, but it was like 2 hours, 45 minutes. I never saw anything like it. It was amazing."
After playing in the U.S. Open for the final time in 1994 at Oakmont, Palmer spent more than 90 minutes signing autographs. The estimate in that session alone was nearly 1,000. Then he went to the volunteer tent and signed some more.
Eight years later, Palmer played the 2002 U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley in Maryland. He was 72 years old at the time, and the weather was scorching hot that week in June. During practice rounds, he would play a hole, then sign for fans as he walked from green to the next tee.
"Despite the heat and exhaustion from walking the hills of Caves, he signed for nearly everyone on the course," recalls Britt, who was Palmer's caddie that week. "After the round, he did not rush into the clubhouse but continued to stand in the sun, signing for everyone."
There was always demand at tournaments, whether as a player or as host of his TOUR event in Bay Hill. As Arnie made his way down the line, his golf shirt began its own collection - of errant sharpies being held out by fans that had touched his shirt and left an unintentional mark, maybe in the form of a squiggly line or circular dot.
Sam Saunders was 12 years old when he walked inside the ropes with his grandfather at the 2000 U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley in Eastern Pennsylvania. "Sharpie marks all over his shirt and he still always took the time not just to sign but to sign legibly," Saunders recalls.
"I don't know how many golf shirts he had to throw away because overzealous fans were pushing their item in one hand and an open Sharpie in another and they got ink on his shirt," Britt says. "I had a few of mine ruined too. When I was with him at golf course situations or crowds, I reminded people that he has his own pen. That helped but did not eliminate the problem."
As age became a factor, the signing sessions became more challenging. Palmer was determined to fulfill all requests, so he would sign until his hands wore out. Someone on his staff would retrieve a bottle of soothing hand lotion, and gently massage Palmer's hands until he felt well enough to continue signing.
Meanwhile, Arnie never took a dime. If fans provided postage money along with their autographed items, Arnie always returned both the item and the funds. And if fans didn't provide postage or a self-addressed stamped envelope? No problem. Arnie just paid for the postage itself.
The bill ran $250,000 a year.
"This man is the all-time king when it comes to not just the game, but signing autographs," said former PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem, who counted Arnold Palmer's autograph as one of his most cherished items inside his office at TOUR headquarters. "He signs everything for everybody -- without hesitation."
Ultimately, the power of Arnold Palmer's signature is not derived from its legibility, its volume or its marketing and brand impact. Palmer used his right hand to sign all those autographs, but the source comes from his heart.
He loved his fans. He appreciated them, he fed off them, and he was as devoted to them as much as his Army was devoted to him. Anybody can spend an average of six seconds to sign a 2-1/2-inch long autograph. Arnie made those six seconds last longer because this was a mutual investment.
"What was extraordinary to me was the amount of time and patience he dedicated to signing autographs," says daughter Amy. "When we were young children and traveled more extensively with our parents, I vividly remember sitting in the back seat of the car for what seemed like hours while he accommodated every person who made a request of his time. He signed every autograph. And he would engage the fans by sharing stories with everyone who had waited to be acknowledged.
"His feelings stemmed from the great appreciation and inspiration these followers showed him. They were a significant catalyst to the success he was able to later realize. He always had all the time in the world for the fans as he never forgot how important they were to him."
World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam feels fortunate to become a close friend of Palmer's in Orlando. They even worked together on a golf course design project in Minnesota, and when her son Will was born nine weeks prematurely, it was the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children that took care of her and her baby.
Afterward, Arnie stopped by their house, telling Annika and her husband Mike McGee that young Will could one day play in his event at Bay Hill. (Alas, Will, who turns seven the week of this year's event, has shown a bit more interest in soccer and basketball.)
During her heyday, the demand on Sorenstam's autograph was arguably bigger than anybody else's on the LPGA Tour. Unlike Palmer, she was naturally shy, a by-product of her stoic Swedish background. She signed but she did not always connect ... until she met Arnie.
"I learned a lot from him to open up a little bit more and welcome people, the way you look at them with eye contact," Sorenstam says. "Keep in mind, I was really, really shy. I'm still very shy but Mr. Palmer was very different, how he interacted with them and how he made them feel. I think that's something I learned from him. That doesn't mean I do it as well or as often as he did, but I try.
"He was just amazing. He would look people in the eye, take the time, maybe ask one little question or something. Make it really personal. He always made it feel like you were the only one. He didn't make you feel like he was in a hurry to get anywhere.
"People were like his oxygen, if you know what I mean. He lived by it."
The modern-day golfer most inclined to breathe that same oxygen is Phil Mickelson. Like Arnie, he's always willing to offer a thumb's up or a tip of his cap to adoring fans. And, like Arnie, he's a tireless worker along the autograph line.
Unlike Arnie, though, his signature is not the most artistic or legible. By the time Mickelson went to school, the Palmer Method had fallen out of favor in American schools.
"He and Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus have very legible signatures and I always try to make mine legible as well - or at least know that it's me if you look at it from a distance," Mickelson says. "But that's not what struck me about Arnold. It was the way he interacted with people and the way he made them feel comfortable when they were around him."
Arnold Palmer often called it a "privilege" to sign autographs, and every fan who wanted one considers it both a cherished item and a priceless memory.
But there was at least one Palmer autograph that earned a less-than-enthusiastic reception. It came after Sam Saunders won his club championship as a 16-year-old. The trophy for winning was a signed photo - of his granddad.
"Great," Saunders recalls when he told his granddad what he had won. "I've got a signed photo of you. Thanks a lot."
Of course, Saunders kept it -- and it's now one of his treasured mementoes.
But his most cherished piece of memorabilia from his granddad is not signed. It's the caddie suit that Sam wore when accompanying Arnie at the Masters in 2004. The "Palmer" nameplate still adorns the back.
That week was an emotional time for the entire Palmer family - it was Arnie's 50th and last Masters, and also his last start in a PGA TOUR event. But once the tears dried and once all the well-wishes and toasts had been issued in his name, Palmer soon returned home.
Eventually, he settled into the chair at his office, pulled out a Sharpie from his desk drawer, and started fulfilling the autograph requests that had piled up. If people were indeed his oxygen, there was no better way to catch his breath.