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My interview with Arnold Palmer offered me lessons in gratitude and grace

SALT LAKE CITY — It was August of 2000, and I was asked to cover my first golf tournament.

I was unsure how to cover the sport, but I knew one thing after just a few hours on the course — Arnold Palmer was mesmerizing.

And I am not talking about his golf game.

I’m talking about the way he moved through the world. His charm, his grace and his sense of humor were apparent in watching him and in watching the way other golfers and fans responded to him.

I had only been a sports writer for eight months, which made me too naïve to know that the king of golf may not have time for a one-on-one with a writer who couldn’t even articulate her story idea.

The truth is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about Palmer and his visit to Utah via the Senior Tour. But I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask a legend some questions. So I approached his bodyguard, offered my card and told him I’d come to him for a few minutes — any time, any place.

I told some colleagues that I’d made the request, and their response was similar to that of my friends — nice try but not only won’t he have time, especially not for a no-name reporter from a local paper.

I don’t remember where I was when I got the call, but I do remember what he said.

“Amy? This is Arnold.”

My mind could not accept what I heard.

"Excuse me?" I stammered, running away from my toddler, panic constricting my chest.

"This is Arnold Palmer. You wanted to talk to me?"

He said something about the message that was given to him with my card, and I quickly set aside my disbelief and made arrangements to talk with him just after he practiced putting but before he set out for the next day’s round of golf.

I arrived at the golf course two hours early, fighting anxiety by coming prepared with about 1,000 questions.

I watched him practice, and then he went and sat in a golf cart. He motioned for me to come sit by him. I did so, desperately trying to appear calm. Within minutes, I was engaged in one of the most delightful conversations I’ve ever had with anybody — interview subject or friend. He put me at ease with his sense of humor, as well as the thoughtfulness with which he addressed my questions.

He talked with me about losing his wife, about the decline of his abilities, the rise of Tiger Woods, the changes he helped bring to the game and the reasons he gave so much to charity. I learned a lot that morning about grace, healthy competition and the living embodiment of gratitude.

I expected a few minutes, and instead, we sat in that cart talking until someone (twice) came to tell him it was time to compete.

I watched him golf that day with a different perspective. Other people will write about his influence on the game, his impact on sports and his generosity to the world. But he set a standard for me that’s difficult for most athletes to meet. He was a rare talent, made even more unusual because of the person he chose to be.

He told me that day that he continued to play despite his declining game “to pay a debt.” He agreed to compete in the Senior Tour because he knew he was a draw for fans and good for the game. When I asked when his debt to the sport he helped make massively popular and profitable might be paid, he turned the tables on me.

“Can you ever give enough?” he asked me. “My whole life has been very rewarding. Golf is what’s done it for me. It’s very difficult to say when you stop repaying.”

The interview was so enjoyable, his personality to engaging and his stories so fascinating, I almost forgot I was working.

In fact, it was one of the first in which I felt I might learn as much about how to be a better person, as I did about how to succeed in sports.

I have never forgotten his generosity in accepting that interview. I have tried to approach my work with that same commitment to repaying the blessings I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

When I learned the seven-time major winner died Sunday night at age 87, I felt a deep sadness that the world is now without a man who saw beauty, friendship and gratitude in every experience.

He was lucky enough to have a career that lasted more than 60 years and saw him earn 62 PGA tour titles, in addition to those seven majors victories. And while his accomplishments are impressive, his greatest victory was remaining humble in spite of his legendary status. He influenced a lot of people in countless ways during his lifetime, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

So rest easy, Mr. Palmer. Thank you for your time. It was an absolute, unforgettable pleasure.

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports