Arnold Palmer: Icon and pioneer who took golf to the masses

Arnold Palmer with the famous Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship trophy at Royal Birkdale in 1961. Picture: PA Wire.

Arnold Palmer with the famous Claret Jug after winning The Open Championship trophy at Royal Birkdale in 1961. Picture: PA Wire.

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Arnold Palmer brought a country club sport to the masses with a hard-charging style, charisma and a commoner’s touch. At ease with both presidents and the golfing public, and on a first-name basis with both, “The King” died on Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 87.

Alastair Johnston, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Palmer died of complications from heart problems. He said Palmer was admitted to the UPMC Hospital on Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the last few days.

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“Today marks the passing of an era,” said Johnston, Palmer’s longtime agent at IMG. “Arnold Palmer’s influence, profile and achievements spread far beyond the game of golf. He was an iconic American who treated people with respect and warmth, and built a unique legacy through his ability to engage with fans.”

President Barack Obama tweeted about Palmer’s death, saying: “Here’s to The King who was as extraordinary 
on the links as he was generous to others. Thanks for the memories, Arnold.”

Palmer ranked among the most important figures in golf history, and it went well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins. His good looks, devilish grin and go-for-broke manner made the elite sport appealing to one and all. And it helped that he arrived about the same time as television moved into most households, a perfect fit that sent golf to unprecedented popularity.

“If it wasn’t for Arnold, golf wouldn’t be as popular as it is now,” Tiger Woods said in 2004 when Palmer played in his last Masters. “He’s the one who basically brought it to the forefront on TV. If it wasn’t for him and his excitement, his flair, the way he played, golf probably would not have had that type of excitement. And that’s why he’s the king.”

Beyond his golf, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for scores of other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. Some four decades after his last PGA Tour win, he still ranked among the highest earners in golf.

“It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern-day PGA Tour without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA Tour Champions without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. “No one has had a greater impact on those who play our great sport or who are touched by it.

“It has been said many times over in so many ways, but beyond his immense talent, Arnold transcended our sport with an extraordinarily appealing personality and genuineness that connected with millions, truly making him a champion of the people.”

On the golf course, Palmer was an icon not for how often he won, but the way he did it.

He would hitch up his trousers, drop a cigarette and attack the flags. With powerful hands wrapped around the golf club, Palmer would slash at the ball with all of his might, then twist that muscular neck and squint to see where it went.

“When he hits the ball, the earth shakes,” Gene Littler once said.

Palmer rallied from seven shots behind to win a US Open. He blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to lose a US Open. He was never dull.

“I’m pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint,” Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. “I would like to think that I left them more than just that.”

He left behind a gallery known as “Arnie’s Army”, which began at Augusta National with a small group of soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon, and grew to include 
a legion of fans from every 
corner of the globe.

Palmer stopped playing the Masters in 2004 and hit the ceremonial tee shot every year until 2016, when age began to take a toll and he struggled with his balance.

It was Palmer who gave golf the modern version of the Grand Slam – winning all four professional majors in one year. He came up with the idea after winning the Masters and US Open in 1960. Palmer was runner-up at the Open, later calling it one of the biggest disappointments of his career. But his appearance alone invigorated the Open, which Americans had been ignoring for years.

Palmer never won the PGA Championship, one major short of capturing a career Grand Slam. But then, the standard he set went beyond trophies. It was the way he treated people, looking everyone in the eye with a smile and a wink. He signed every autograph, making sure it was 
legible. He made every fan feel like an old friend.

Palmer never liked being referred to as “The King”, but the name stuck.

“It was back in the early Sixties. I was playing pretty good, winning a lot of tournaments, and someone gave a speech and referred to me as ‘The King,”’ Palmer said in a November 2011 interview.

“I don’t bask in it. I don’t relish it. I tried for a long time to stop that and,” he said, pausing to shrug, “there was no point.”

Palmer played at least one PGA Tour event every season for 52 consecutive years, ending with the 2004 Masters. He spearheaded the growth of the 50-and-older Champions Tour, winning ten times and drawing some of the biggest crowds.

He was equally successful
with golf course design, a wine collection, and apparel that included his famous 
logo of an umbrella. He bought the Bay Hill Club & Lodge upon making his winter home in Orlando, Florida, and in 2007 the PGA Tour changed the name of the tournament to the Arnold Palmer 
Invitational.

The combination of iced tea and lemonade is known as an “Arnold Palmer.” Padraig Harrington recalls eating in an Italian restaurant 
in Miami when he heard a 
customer order one. “Think about it,” Harrington said. “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.”

Palmer, who was born on 10 September 1929 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, joined the PGA Tour in 1955 and won the Canadian Open for the first of his 62 titles. He went on to 
win four green jackets at Augusta National, along with the Open in 1961 and 1962 and the US Open in 1960, perhaps the most memorable of his seven majors.

Nothing defined Palmer like that 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills. He was seven shots behind going into the final round when he ran into Bob Drum, a Pittsburgh sports writer. Palmer asked if he could still win by shooting 65, which would give him a four-day total of 280. Drum told him that 280 “won’t do you a damn bit of good”.

Incensed, Palmer headed to the first tee and drove the green on the par-4 opening hole to make birdie. He birdied the next three holes, shot 65 and outlasted Ben Hogan and 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus, pictured inset.

Palmer went head to head with Nicklaus two years later in the US Open, the start of one of golf’s most famous rivalries. It was one-sided. Nicklaus went on to win 18 majors and was regarded as golf’s greatest champion. Palmer
won two more majors after that loss, and his last PGA Tour win came in 1973 at the Bob Hope Classic.

Tom Callahan once described the difference between Nicklaus and Palmer this way: It’s as though God said to Nicklaus: “You will have skills like no other.” Then whispered to Palmer: “But they will love you more” .

Palmer combined power with charm, reckless abandon with graceful elegance. Golf no longer was a country club game for old men who were out of shape. He was a man’s man, and he brought that spirit to the sport.

It made him a beloved figure, and brought riches long after he stopped competing.

That started with a handshake agreement with IMG founder Mark McCormack to represent Palmer in contract negotiations. Palmer’s image was everywhere, from motor oil to ketchup to financial services companies. Even as late as 2011, nearly 40 years after his last PGA Tour win, Palmer was No 3 on the Golf Digest list of top earners at $36 million a year. He trailed only Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Palmer’s other love was aviation. He piloted his first aircraft in 1956, and ten years later had a license to fly jets that now are the standard mode of transportation for so many top players, even though the majority of them are merely
passengers. Palmer flew planes the way he played golf. He set a record in 1976 when he circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds in a Lear 36. He continued flying his Cessna Citation 10 until he failed to renew his license at age 81, just short of 20,000 hours in the cockpit.

Through it all, he touched more people than he could possibly remember, though he certainly tried. When asked about the fans he attracted at Augusta National, Palmer once said, “Hell, I know most of them by name.”

Only four other players won more PGA Tour events than Palmer – Sam Snead, Nicklaus, Woods and Hogan.

Palmer’s first wife, Winnie, died in 1999. They had two daughters, and grandson Sam Saunders plays on the PGA Tour. Palmer married Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop in 2005.

Details of the memorial service and burial will be announced later.

Palmer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, which was caught early. He returned to golf a few months later, winking at fans as he waded through the gallery, always a smile and a signature for them.

“I’m not interested in being a hero,” Palmer said, implying that too much was made about his return from cancer. “I just want to play some golf.”

That, perhaps, is his true epitaph. Palmer lived to play.

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