I met Arnold Palmer when I was 18 years old. I was a freshman at Wake Forest University and it was 1982. I received the Arnold Palmer Scholarship to attend Wake Forest and he was passing through North Carolina and stopped by to see Coach (Jesse) Haddock and the team. He gave us an inspirational talk and pulled me aside before he left. He wanted to meet his newest scholarship recipient ! All I remember was how large his hand was after he gave me the biggest handshake of my life. I didn’t realize then how that handshake would bond us for the next 34 years.
In 1987, I qualified for my first Masters as an amateur. I was finishing up my degree at Wake Forest and excited about playing. My first round pairing was Arnold Palmer. I heard The King put a word in that he wanted to play with his scholarship boy. All I remember was he made me feel so, so comfortable.
I joined the PGA Tour in 1988 and I needed a sponsor’s exemption into the Bay Hill Classic. Guess who took care of me? AP! I played at Bay Hill in three different decades. Later in my career, I would always get to the course early. I would walk up to Arnold’s office and ask him if he was ready. We would always go off and play the back nine. It was a tradition and the best two hours of my life.
In 1995, Arnold played in his last British Open at St Andrews. As he marked his ball on the 18th green for the last time, he turned to the first tee. Guess who was on the tee hitting next? Me! They delayed my tee shot so The King could finish. He looked right into my soul and gave me the traditional thumbs up sign. It was a moment in my life I will never, ever forget.
I was fortunate to get a phone call from Arnold in 2004. He accepted to come to Rhode Island and play in my CVS Health Charity Classic. He said, “I’m coming but only if you will be my partner?” What an easy request to fulfill. Since it’s my charity event that
I co-chair with Brad Faxon, I have a say in the pairings. So, in the first round I paired the team of Palmer/Andrade with a couple of Arnie’s Wake Forest boys, Jay and Bill Haas. It was another unbelievable experience. Arnold had so much fun he came back again the following year. He did it all for me.
All I can say is that I am one lucky person to have been able to spend so much time with someone who was the classiest, nicest, most admired man I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter if you were with him for five minutes or a couple of days, it was never long enough. You always wanted more. I also never been around someone who made you feel so comfortable. That was the Arnold I knew. I never met Elvis Presley. But last Sunday, I lost my Elvis.
Billy Andrade is a Rhode Island native and one of the best golfers New England has produced. He helped Wake Forest win the NCAA Championship in 1986, posted four wins on the PGA Tour, and has three victories on the Champions Tour. He is co-chairman of the annual CVS Health Charity Classic.