Mar 15, 2018: It was Tuesday morning, 48 hours before the first tee shot would be launched at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. William McGirt, then a PGA TOUR rookie, had just made his way through the nearby autograph line and was now on Bay Hill’s practice green with his caddie and coach.
Suddenly, a thick, meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder. McGirt, a bit startled, turned around. It was the tournament’s namesake.
“I just want to say thank you,” said Arnold Palmer.
A million thoughts suddenly ran through McGirt’s head. Why would this golf legend, whose schedule no doubt was jam-packed that week, take the time to approach the world’s 354th-ranked player? And why was he thanking him? McGirt had played the previous day in a Monday pro-am; perhaps that was the reason?
It wasn’t. Arnie had just finished signing autographs for the same group of fans McGirt had accommodated earlier. Many of those fans had multiple autographs of players on their pin flags and caps. “Yours was the only signature I could read,” Palmer told McGirt.
A sly smile crossed the rookie’s face as he offered up a response.
“I remember some old guy said one time, if you’re gonna take the time to sign it, at least make it legible,” McGirt explained.
Arnie winked, gave the rookie a thumb’s up, then went on his merry way, satisfied that another young golfer was faithfully adhering to his message.
Arnold Palmer’s impact on the game of golf came in ways too numerous to count, and no aspect is too small to ignore. Yes, he may be remembered most for the way he changed golf in terms of marketing and advertising, or for how he brought the sport into the age of television, eventually helping to launch an entire network devoted to it. His golf course design, his business approach, his brand — all provide lessons that generations of future pros will lean on.
But his impact on something as simple as an autograph is equally compelling. For Arnie, it wasn’t just a scribble on a piece of paper, or a fleeting, forgettable, inconsequential moment. He viewed his autograph as a direct connection with his fans, a way to deliver a little part of himself, a chance to bond with those who had joined his Army.
That’s why his signature became the most iconic in golf, possibly in all of sports, and joined his famous umbrella logo as the symbol of his brand. It’s why legibility was so important. What was a name if it’s not readable? Plus, legibility showed respect, showed that he cared enough to deliver his best effort. It was a sermon he had preached to others long before his brief encounter with McGirt at Bay Hill.
Peter Jacobsen learned the lesson soon after he joined the PGA TOUR in the late 1970s. He occasionally would play exhibitions with Palmer, and one day was signing a variety of programs and pin flags. Palmer saw the incomprehensible squiggly lines — and was not impressed.
“That’s a terrible signature,” Arnie told Jacobsen. “It’s way too sloppy. You can sign that on a check or a contract; you can slop it there. But if you’re signing a piece of memorabilia, you sign it so people can read it.”
Jacobsen immediately adjusted his signature. “I’ve taken that to heart my entire life,” he says now. “I don’t sign my name anymore. I draw my name, just like Arnold did. I take time so that it’s legible.”
Jacobson soon became one of Palmer’s key disciples, spreading the message to other pro golfers. One day early in his career, Matt Kuchar heard Jacobsen retell the tale.
“That story gets passed down,” Kuchar says, “and when it comes from Arnold Palmer, you go yeah, I need to make sure that when people get home, they know who signed it. That story came straight from Peter Jacobsen, and I’ve retold the story myself to others. I don’t know if it’s impacted anybody I told it to, but certainly when Peter told it to me, it had an effect.”
Ernie Els didn’t even need to hear the message; just seeing the actual product made him change his signature. In his younger days, Els used to sign his first name legibly, but let his last name trail off in an indecipherable flourish. After noting how tightly Arnold Palmer’s signature was constructed, Els went for a similar look.
“I put the (first and last names) close together now, pretty much like Arnold,” Els says. “And my signature is now a little bit more like his, up and down. I wouldn’t say I tried to copy what he did, but I definitely saw what had to be done.”
Palmer’s message of legibility was not limited to simply the PGA TOUR, or even to other male golfers with whom he crossed paths. Over on the LPGA Tour, the players took notice. Jacobsen recalls playing an exhibition with Paula Creamer, and they were both making their way down the autograph line.
Suddenly, one of the fans told Creamer: “Paula, your signature is so nice.”
Jacobsen had yet to tell her the legibility story. As it turns out, Arnie had already delivered it. “I was playing with Arnold Palmer in a tournament one time,” Creamer told the fan, “and he told me to make sure people could read my name.”
Palmer, however, may have saved his harshest criticism for his own family.
As a schoolboy, Sam Saunders had one dream — to become a pro golfer, just like his famous grandfather. He knew if he fulfilled his dream, there might be requests for his autograph. So on the days when his mind wandered in class, he began practicing. “I wanted to have a cool, good-looking signature,” Saunders recalled. “Something you can take pride in.”
But when Grandpa Arnie saw the teenage Sam’s signature, he felt compelled to impart the lesson.
“I looked at that autograph and I couldn’t read it,” Palmer recalled. “I didn’t know what the hell it said. … Now when he gives an autograph, you can read it.”
Palmer told that story back in 2008 during his pre-tournament press conference at Bay Hill. A year later, his grandson fulfilled his dream of turning pro. Soon after, Saunders realized the full impact of his grandfather’s autograph.
“Obviously he had a lot of fans who wanted his signature,” Saunders says, “but when I saw my peers and some of the caddies I’ve known out here for a long time wanting to get things signed by him — well, he was so important to them. That’s when you really realize how much his signature means to golf.”