By John Fineran
Mike Mihalick, a cyclone-fence installer and father of a young man with cerebral palsy, gave me my first golf club.
Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer God put on this planet, gave me the greatest thrill I ever had as a sports writer when he took a butter pecan ice cream cone I bought for him in the summer of 1985, told me he wasn’t through winning major championships and then in 1986 delivered one last one at Augusta National for me and others to chronicle.
Mike and Jack never met but they had a profound influence on my life. Two decent men of integrity and honesty on the golf course and away from it, and they shared one thing in common.
They absolutely loved Arnold Palmer, who passed away Sunday at the age of 87. He was of the same stock that produced Mike and Jack.
We all loved Arnold Palmer, Our King of golf forever.
No one did it with more style and produced more smiles with his kindness than Our King, who never forgot his working-class roots, which is why the common Joes and Josephines loved him. They formed “Arnold’s Army” and golf came to the masses in the late 1950s.
Our King numbered seven major golf championships, including four Masters titles, among his 76 world victories. He won the 1960 U.S. Open after driving the green on the opening par-4 hole and finished with a final-round 65 that catapulted him past Nicklaus, then an amateur, and an aging Ben Hogan. He singlehandedly made the British Open popular again after his victories in 1961 and ’62.
Who didn’t love Our King, who signed millions of autographs always in a distinctive and legible script? Who couldn’t love Our King, who gave millions and millions to charities that benefitted children’s hospitals around the world, especially in his second home of Orlando?
Our King once flew his jet from Latrobe to South Bend in 1967 to participate in a charity outing for ailing children at South Bend Country Club. He played 18 holes with the club pro, Gary Carle, and two others – some singer by the name of Perry Como and a club member named Ara Parseghian, whose Notre Dame team had won the national championship the previous football season. Two mighty swings on the closing hole got Our King to the fringe of the par-5 18th where he paused to thank the hundreds of golf fans who came to follow them that day and to help the charity.
Our King then stepped up and chipped in for eagle. True story – men of honesty like Our King, Perry Como and Ara Parseghian never lie or cheat.
My fondest memories of Our King are two.
In 1980, when I was covering my first U.S. Open at Baltusrol about seven miles from where I grew up, I was walking back to the press tent when I came upon Our King returning from a run through the streets of Springfield, N.J. I called out to him and ask if I could have a few minutes to talk, and he invited me into the locker room and then gave me an interview. He didn’t rush me through it, either. I think he sensed how much it meant to me by seeing my shaking hand scribbling notes.
In 1989, I was at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago when Our King, then 59, shot a front-side 31 in the opening round of the PGA Championship, the only major championship he never won. As he walked from the ninth green to the 10th tee, through a roped-off path cutting across the putting green, those working on their short games stopped and applauded. We all had chills that day.
I passed those lessons of honesty and integrity I got from Mike, Jack and Our King to my two children – Kathryn Marie and Matthew. Our King would be proud to know that Kathryn Marie Fineran became a pretty good golfer at Lemon Bay High School in Englewood, Fla. That wasn’t the school where she first played. She transferred to Lemon Bay because the girls on her previous high school thought it was OK to cheat when recording their scores.
Katie wouldn’t cheat and asked to transfer. The next fall, for Lemon Bay, she returned and kicked her former teammates’ collective butts, leaving one in
Katie used that transfer to become a better student, too, went off to South Florida and got a bachelor’s and Master’s degree in five years. She is now a speech and hearing therapist, helping children, and I couldn’t be prouder.
I’m proud of son Matthew, too. He chose baseball for his year-round sport in Florida, but he has now turned his attention to golf, playing the way his sister played, with a healthy respect for the game and its rules. He loves it as much as Our King did through his 87 years.
The Fineran children loved and respected Our King so much they became annual regulars at his tournament in Orlando.
They loved Our King. I loved our King. Mike Mihalick, Jack Nicklaus and millions, millions more loved Our King. We were all his friends.
“My friend – many people’s friend – just wore out,” The Golden Bear said in a statement. “I will miss him greatly.”
Our nation, which needs more like him in this year of political discord, will miss him, too.
“It’s an honest and privilege to have known Arnold Palmer,” Ben Crenshaw eulogized.
A toast — make mine an Arnold Palmer.
Long live Our King!!
— 30 for Arnie —
(John Fineran has covered sporting events for more than 40 years for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native New Jersey. He once played Augusta National and shot 110; he once played Baltusrol, putted for eagle on the first hole and missed, and settled for shooting his body temperature, 98. He believes golf is truly the greatest game because of people like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Mike Mihalick.)