Arnold Palmer, whose swashbuckling style, dashing looks and charismatic personality carried the game of golf into mainstream sports, died Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 87.
His longtime assistant Doc Giffin confirmed that Palmer died at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital.
Palmer brought golf into the television age with dramatic wins and losses in major tournaments, and touched millions with his down-to-earth approach to the game and life. He became a superstar, and his millions of fans around the globe formed Arnie’s Army, who adored him long after his competitive game had waned.
They called him “The King,” both his fans and the players who credited him with making PGA Tour golf a worthwhile pursuit and filling their pockets. His association with Mark McCormack, who founded the giant International Management Group with the immensely popular Palmer as his first client, made Palmer the first great marketable athlete. He was revered for his brutish swing, his attacking game and his endearing nature.
“I used to hear cheers go up from the crowd around Palmer,” all-time great Lee Trevino once said. “And I never knew whether he’d made a birdie or hitched up his pants.”
Palmer was a friend to the everyman. He looked fans in the eye, signed his autograph with a distinctive script, and relished being in the spotlight while always evincing a genuine home-spun humility. As the legendary Sam Snead once said: “Palmer went to bed at night with charisma. And the next morning he woke up with more.”
Presidents, royalty, corporate bigwigs all sought his hand and he gave it with undying gratitude. He was a close friend of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who played golf with Palmer and often escaped the rigors of the Washington political life by spending time at Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In the foyer of Palmer’s relatively modest home is a small painting, a piece of Americana portraying farm animals outside of a barn. The initials in the lower right corner are DDE. The painting was a gift from the Eisenhower.
Palmer biographer James Dodson wrote: “We loved him with a mythic American joy. He represented everything that is great about golf. The friendship, the fellowship, the laughter, the impossibility of golf, the sudden rapture moment that brings you back, the moment you never forget, that’s Arnold Palmer in spades.”
Born in Latrobe on Sept. 10, 1929, Palmer was the son of Milfred “Deacon” Palmer and Doris Palmer. “Deke” was the golf professional and greens superintendent at the Latrobe Country Club who was demanding of his son and a strict disciplinarian. Palmer always credited his father, whom he called “Pap,” and his mother with building the base of both his golf game and his persona.
He attended Wake Forest University for three years, then left after the death of close friend and teammate Bud Worsham. He became a paint salesman and enlisted in the Coast Guard, where he was able to continue to play the game and develop his unique swing. In 1954, he announced himself to the golf world by winning the U.S. Amateur. He turned pro and won the Canadian Open in 1955, the first of his 62 official PGA Tour wins.
But it was his success at the Masters, winning four times in alternate years from 1958 to 1964, that put him, the Augusta National Golf Club and the game of golf on the grand stage. In 1960 he won the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, coming from seven shots behind after driving to the green on the 346-yard par 4 first hole to start the final round, setting up an easy birdie.
The lead up to that final round became legend.
He was close friends with Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Drum and before the round he asked: “What’ll happen if I shoot 65?”
“Nothing, said Drum, “You blew your chance.”
“Like hell I did,” Palmer replied. “A 65 gives me 280 and 280 wins the Open.”
Palmer went on to shoot a 65, edging out an amateur prodigy named Jack Nicklaus by two shots to win his only Open title.
Palmer is credited with reviving the flagging fortunes of the British Open when he finished second at St. Andrews in 1960 and won in 1961 and 1962. He is also credited, along with Drum and other friends, of coining the term “Grand Slam” for winning all four majors: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship, in the same year. He had won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960 and was going for a third major at the British Open at St. Andrews.
Palmer won his last regular PGA Tour event in 1973. Putting woes got to him (the barn where he stored his enormous collection of memorabilia and equipment has thousands of putters). But he remained so popular that the PGA Tour launched the Senior Tour on his substantial shoulders in the early 1980s, and it survives today at the PGA Tour Champions.
“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.”
Arnold Daniel Palmer
Professional Golf Career
Turned professional: 1954
PGA Tour wins: 62 (5th all-time)
Major championship wins: 7 (Masters 4, British Open 2, U.S. Open 1)
Achievements and Awards
World Golf Hall of Fame:1974
PGA Tour leading money winner: 1958, 1960, 1962, 1963
PGA Player of the Year: 1960, 1962
Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year:1960
Presidential Medal of Freedom:2004