The King Is Dead

It would be impossible for me to let the passing of Arnold Palmer go by without comment. This isn’t another golf screed. It’s some thinking on a great businessman who used golf as a jumping off point to demonstrate some behaviors all of us ought to try to emulate as we go through our business lives.

English: Arnold Palmer, taken by Hospital staf...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arnold Palmer passed last night at 87. A lot of what you need to know about him was captured in something Time Magazine wrote in 1962:

“When God created Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer,” it wrote, “He turned to Nicklaus and said, ‘You will be the greatest the game has ever seen.’ Then He turned to Palmer, adding, ‘But they will love you more.’ ”

Palmer’s achievements on the course were substantial. He won 62 times on the PGA Tour and those wins included 7 major championships. He did so with an “everyman” swagger, a swing that was uniquely his (and was far from classic), and an attitude of going for broke on every shot. But it was off the course where Mr. Palmer’s lessons for all of us begin.

He considered golf a personification of basic life principles. As he wrote:

“Golf resembles life in so many ways. More than any game on earth, golf depends on simple, timeless principles of courtesy and respect.”

He was legendary for taking time to sign autographs for fans. Each of those signatures was legible because he felt that he should show respect to those who asked for one. You won’t find a picture of him shaking hands where he isn’t looking the other person in the eye. In short, he was beloved because he reciprocated that love.

He was able to turn all that love into a business empire. It’s often said that Mr. Palmer didn’t invent sports marketing but that he perfected it. Endorsement deals with Pennzoil, Arizona Beverages, drug companies, and dozens of others, along with his golf course design business generated a lot of money. But he gave back, and his charity work was an important part of who he was. He also mentored younger golfers and wrote a note every week to whomever won on the Tour. He also answered all of his fan mail. In short, he was among the best on the course and unequalled off the course.

What can you learn from him? First, performance counts. The basic product needs to be among the best to make all the other activities important. Second, show respect for your customers and reciprocate their affection. We talk a lot about engagement, and Mr. Palmer engaged the fans, speaking to them directly and not through press conferences. Third, never let anything you do potentially harm your brand. If you lend your brand to another via licensing or joint venture, be sure that the end result enhances what you do and can’t possibly denigrate your good work to that point.

I know of very few people in the sports business who are universally beloved. Mr. Palmer was at the top of that very short list. Rest easy, sir, and thank you for a lifetime of excellence.

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