The title of Arnold Palmer's final memoir that's due out in a few weeks is called A Life Well Played, which couldn't be more appropriate, especially now in light of his passing Sunday at age 87.
No one enjoyed life more. He attacked it like the way he attacked the golf course – with a go-for-broke style that included flying his own jets.
But that all came to a crashing halt in Dec. 2014 when he dislocated his shoulder after tripping over his dog, Mulligan, at his condo at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida. This was just a couple months after undergoing surgery to have a pacemaker implanted.
"His shoulder never healed and it started a bit of a downward spiral," his personal assistant for 50 years, Doc Giffin, tells PEOPLE. "He never had his vim and vigor after that."
Palmer, the winner of 62 PGA Tour titles and seven major championships, could no longer play the game he loved so much, the game that had given the greenskeeper's son from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, so much.
"It was not a good thing," says Giffin, "but he always kept his hopes alive. He'd say, 'I think I'll go down and hit some balls today.' He would go try but just couldn't do it."
In order to try and regain some quality of life, Palmer entered the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center last Thursday for some prep work and tests before a scheduled valve surgery. Giffin, who last spoke to him on Friday when he seemed "okay," was at home in Latrobe when Palmer's wife, Kit, called with the news of his passing about 6 p.m Sunday.
"I was shocked but not totally surprised," he says. "I was dreading the likelihood that this was going to happen. I just felt so sorry for Kit."
Reflecting on 50 years as the hand of the King, Giffin's favorite memory happened in Sept. 1966 just two months after he started working for Palmer. Winnie Palmer (Arnold's then-wife, who died in 1999) had secretly arranged for Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a friend and golf partner, to surprise her husband for his 37th birthday.
"Answer the door, Arnold," Winnie said when there was a knock. To Palmer's great shock and pleasant surprise, there was the 34th President and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe standing there in casual clothes. "Do you think you might find room for an old man overnight?" asked Ike, who brought Palmer a painting of a farm scene he had done as a birthday present.
"It was one of Arnold's most prized possessions and still hangs in his home here," says Giffin.
Now, with front-page headlines and even President Barack Obama releasing a statement, the outpouring of emotion has been just what Giffin expected.
"Arnold transcended the game of golf," Jack Nicklaus wrote on his website. "He was more than a golfer or even a great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend ... He was the king of our sport and always will be."
His legion of fans became known as "Arnie's Army" and even the commander-in-chief saluted him in his statement.
"With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it ... That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did ... Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie's Army in saluting the King."
Although he was called the King, what made Palmer so popular was that he always remained a friend to the common man. One of the ways you can tell his respect for his fellow man was his autograph. He always wrote it so you could clearly read it. It wasn't just some fast scribble like so many celebrities do – and this is a man who literally signed a couple hundred thousand autographs over the course of his life.
"Arnold Palmer liked people and people sensed that in the way he treated them and they in turn liked him," says Giffin, who'd like people to remember his boss not only for what a great man he was but what he did for the game of golf. "He brought golf into the upper echelons of sport and he took great advantage of his success to be a major philanthropist over the years."