Tiger Woods passed Arnold Palmer on the PGA Tour's career victory list last year, and some found it surprising how the King chose to congratulate him. "We've had a couple of text messages back and forth," Palmer said.
If it's hard to imagine Palmer punching his thumbs on a cell phone to send a text, another sign of the times comes on Thursday when Palmer celebrates his 80th birthday.
And how to mark the big occasion? By playing golf, of course.
Palmer was in Orlando, Fla., for some weekend festivities. He threw out the first pitch Tuesday night at a Pittsburgh Pirates game. Then he retreated to his home in western Pennsylvania for golf and dinner Wednesday at Laurel Valley. His office said he would play golf with friends Thursday at Latrobe Country Club.
That's where Palmer learned to play golf. After all these years, it remains his greatest passion.
"I think of him as the greatest amateur-professional who ever lived," longtime friend Dow Finsterwald said in this month's issue of Golf Digest. "By that I mean he never stopped playing the game for the love of it, like an amateur. Sure, he liked making a nice living. But he loved to play. Still does."
Jack Nicklaus, a close friend and rival, met up with him at the Masters this year and the conversation turned to golf. Nicklaus asked how he was playing and Palmer told him, "Horrible."
"'How much are you playing?' He said, 'Every day,'" Nicklaus said. "But that's him. That's what he does."
Padraig Harrington recalled watching a Champions Tour event a decade ago, when Palmer came off the course excited as ever.
"He is buzzing," Harrington said. "You've never seen a man with so much excitement and enthusiasm, because he found the secret to the game. I just love the fact he's played the game at least 50 years competitively, and he's still convinced that there's a secret. I just love his enthusiasm."
Nicklaus believes Palmer's record, including seven majors, only tells part of the story.
Palmer won the Masters four times, but his swashbuckling style and the arrival of television proved to be the perfect marriage to make golf appealing to the masses. His only U.S. Open victory defined his hard-charging style. Americans rarely traveled to the British Open until Palmer made the trip in 1960 and made golf's oldest championship relevant again.
He never won the PGA Championship, although it was Palmer who created the modern Grand Slam.
"I think he brought a lot more to the game than his game," Nicklaus said. "What I mean by that is, there's no question about his record and his ability to play the game. He was very, very good at that. But he obviously brought a lot more. He brought the hitch of his pants, the flair that he brought to the game, the fans that he brought into the game.
"He brought more than just his golf game."
And he keeps right on going. Palmer is the only living player with a PGA Tour event named after him _ the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill _ and he was among those who made a strong pitch for golf to become part of the Olympics.
He remains current to players not even born when he won his last PGA Tour event in 1973, including Woods.
While talking about Palmer's impending 80th birthday, Woods recalled nearly losing his college eligibility because of the kindness of the King. The Champions Tour was in northern California one year, and Woods was in Stanford when Palmer invited him to dinner.
"The tab comes, and I'm not going to say, 'Hey, Arnold, it's on me.' He picks up the tab like it's no big deal," Woods said. "And (I) come to find out, my coach had to report me because that was a violation. I had to send him a check."
Phil Mickelson patterns much of his game and his personality after Palmer. No other star signs more autographs and makes more eye contact than Mickelson, and it pleases Palmer especially that Mickelson's signature is legible.
Mickelson qualified for his first Masters in 1991 as a U.S. Amateur champion, and he quickly arranged a practice round with Palmer.
"We walked off the 18th tee about 100 yards, and he kind of grabs my arm and pulls me over and stops, and says, 'Right here. Right here,'" Mickelson said. Palmer then told him of the 1961 Masters, when someone in the gallery congratulated him for a sure victory. He hit into a bunker, made double bogey and lost.
"He was still fuming about it 30 years later," Mickelson said.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was on his way to Laurel Valley on Wednesday and said only that the tour would have a "little presentation" for him. What to get one of the most popular figures in golf for his 80th birthday?
Harrington wouldn't know where to begin. He remains in awe of the time he was at an Italian restaurant last year in Miami having an appetizer when he heard someone approach the bar and order an Arnold Palmer.
"Now that's getting to another level," Harrington said. "Think about it. You don't go up there and order a Tiger Woods at the bar. You can go up there and order an Arnold Palmer in this country and the barman _ he was a young man _ knew what the drink was. That's in a league of your own."