By Mark Lamport-Stokes
OAKMONT, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Golfing great Arnold Palmer, one of Pennsylvania's most famous sons, will not attend this week's U.S. Open at his beloved Oakmont Country Club but his influence lives on through almost every player in the field.
A seven-times major champion, Palmer had no peers as a fan favorite and always went to great lengths to ensure that every person waiting in line ended up with a cherished autograph, an approach that even today's generation of players tries to live up to.
With his swashbuckling style, prodigious length off the tee, bold putting and affection for the galleries, he did more than any other player to popularize the game with the advent of television.
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While Palmer is at home this week in nearby Latrobe because of increasing mobility problems due to failing health, young guns such as Justin Thomas and Matthew Fitzpatrick are well aware of the massive golfing impact made by the 'The King'.
"I played in a couple of Palmer Cups and every time I sign my name for fans, I know to make it legible," American Thomas, 23, told Reuters, referring to the annual team competition between golfers from U.S. colleges and European universities.
"And that's something that I learned from Mr. Palmer. He's had such an impact on our game, not only through the golf side but also because of the kind of person he is.
"His impact with the tournament he has at Bay Hill and what he does for all of us, how supportive he is with the game of golf trying to make it grow, it's really cool," said Thomas, who won his first PGA Tour title at the CIMB Classic in November.
Englishman Fitzpatrick, playing his first U.S. Open as a professional this week after tying for 48th on his tournament debut at Pinehurst in 2014 as an amateur, agreed.
"Arnold Palmer obviously has not played as big a role for me in Europe but I also learned from him to make my name legible whenever I sign autographs," said the 21-year-old, who is already a double winner on the European Tour.
"That was the first thing that I learned about Arnold Palmer while I was growing up, he would always sign every autograph that he had to do and make it legible so you can actually read it rather than just scribble it.
"Everything you read about him, he's such a fantastic person and he has done so much for the game of golf," Fitzpatrick said at the annual Rolex U.S. Open evening in honor of Palmer, who won the 1960 championship at Cherry Hills.
The 86-year-old Palmer, who was a member of the 'Big Three' with fellow golfing greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, will forever be linked to Oakmont where he competed in five U.S. Opens between 1953 and 1994.
In 1962, he finished second to Nicklaus after losing an 18-hole playoff on the Sunday while 1994 marked his final competitive round in his national championship after he missed the cut in front of massive galleries.
South African Ernie Els, who went on to win the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, will never forget Palmer's swansong appearance.
"When he retired from U.S. Open play, it was quite emotional," Els recalled earlier this week. "A lot of players waited for him to play the 18 holes. I was on the range when he finished that morning and it was great.
"I mean, he's 'The King', he's the man," said the 46-year-old South African, a four-times major champion. "He was the guy that took the game and moved it forward himself.
"He kept playing a game that he loved for such a long time, established a golf tournament after his name. If you want to look at a guy that you want to emulate ... you look at Arnold Palmer and follow what he did."
While Els and his generation are in the twilight of their careers, Thomas and Fitzpatrick are only just starting out on theirs and both are following in Palmer's footsteps as Rolex ambassadors - another link to bind them, as The King began his relationship with the luxury watchmaker 49 years ago.
(Editing by Larry Fine)