Arnold Palmer’s death at age 87 on Sunday brought to an end an extraordinary life and again put the spotlight on his extraordinary legacy.
With seven major championship victories and 62 wins on the PGA Tour, Palmer was one of the all-time greats of the game of golf. But Palmer was far more than a championship golfer. He was the seminal superstar of the television age who transcended not only his own sport, but the sporting world.
His aggressive, attacking, dashing style of play leaped off the television screen into millions of homes. His magnetic, endearing, humble personality charmed masses worldwide and captivated the corporate world. He elevated the game of golf exponentially, and, through his relationship with sports agent Mark McCormack, elevated and forever changed how sports stars were marketed and compensated.
The game he played so boldly, so fiercely, so emotionally, benefited so magnificently from his presence and for generations to come he was the benefactor of professional golfers and all professional athletes.
“He obviously meant so much not only to the PGA Tour, but to the entirety of golf by lifting it to newfound visibility and popularity,” tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. “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 [nee Senior Tour] without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer.
“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 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.”
It was McCormack, the first super agent of sports, who founded the giant International Management Group with Palmer as his first client, the man who helped Palmer become the most marketable athlete of his time. Their relationship, which began in 1958, wasn’t always smooth. Palmer and his wife, Winnie, already had started making connections in the business world that would take advantage of his popularity. But it was McCormack who finally convinced Palmer that he and other sports stars were being drastically under rewarded for their accomplishments and they had to buck the system.
In golf, bucking the system meant that tour players needed to break away from the PGA of America, the association of golf club professionals that controlled what was the tour in its early years. And it was Palmer, along with Jack Nicklaus, who led the charge in the 1960s to create a tournament players division that ultimately became the PGA Tour as we know it today.
Through McCormack, and the founding of his own corporation, Palmer established himself as the ultimate brand in sports. He was a spokesman for United Airlines, Hertz Rental Car, Pennzoil, Cadillac, Cessna aircraft, EZ-Go golf carts, Arnold Palmer iced tea, Rolex and several other brands. Well into his 80s, he became a spokesman for the heart drug Xarelto. Palmer’s golf course design company is credited with about 300 designs worldwide. His name was attached to golf clubs, clothing and a now long defunct chain of dry cleaning stores. He built a fortune estimated to be well more than half a billion dollars.
“I was very lucky to get to know Mr. Palmer,” hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky said Monday. “Mr. Palmer took not only golf to another level, he took all of sports to another level. He got sports involved in the corporate world. Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack were pioneers that created a whole new market for professional athletes. I can tell you Arnold Palmer is the man who created the market for athletes to endorse cars, clothes, hockey sticks, whatever.”
His relationship with the aviation industry was intensely personal. Palmer became an accomplished pilot, logging more than 20,000 hours in a series of aircraft from his original leased Cessna prop plane to his Cessna Citation X jet, one of the fastest of all private aircraft. He gave up his pilot’s license in 2011.
He landed a military jet on an aircraft carrier, was invited by the chairman of Boeing to test fly a 747 and McDonnell Douglas corporation invited him to fly a DC-10. In May 1976, Palmer and three associates flew a Lear 36 jet around the world in slightly less than 58 hours, still recognized as the world record. The airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, his hometown, is the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
Palmer promoted Cessna aircraft and was a frequent speaker at the National Business Aviation Association convention where he continually emphasized that besides marrying his first wife, Winnie, the best decision he ever made was to become a pilot.
And it was with Winnie, who died in 1999, that Palmer launched his many charitable and humanitarian ventures. After establishing a second home in the Orlando area (he eventually bought the Bay Hill Club and resort), Palmer became involved in charitable initiatives within the medical community with emphasis on children’s and women’s health. Out of that involvement came the Arnold Palmer Medical Center at which he was a regular visitor who delighted spending time with children and was curious about all that went into their care.
Palmer was a frequent participant in charitable golf events across the nation, and his presence was guaranteed to substantially increase the donations.
His immense presence on and off the course earned him endless accolades and awards. President George W. Bush cited him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. In 2012, he was given the Congressional Gold Medal. There had been talk of Palmer running for Congress from the state of Pennsylvania in the late 1970s, which Palmer turned down and said, with that characteristic glint in his eye: “I would have to take a pay cut.”
The massive Palmer persona started with a swing, a look, a go-for-broke style that connected him with millions through the television screen.
Lance Barrow, executive producer of golf and NFL football for CBS, worked with legendary golf producer Frank Chirkinian at CBS. Chirkinian was an unabashed champion of Arnold Palmer. “Frank always said that the camera loved Arnold Palmer and Arnold Palmer loved the camera,” Barrow said. “He came along at the time that people were really [getting into television] and Arnie was the perfect match.”