Arnold Palmer, a seven-time major winner who brought golf to the masses and became the most beloved figure in the game, died Sunday, a source close to the family confirmed to Golfweek. He was 87.
No one did more to popularize the sport than Palmer. His dashing
presence singlehandedly took golf out of the country clubs and into the
mainstream. Quite simply, he made golf cool.
“I used to hear cheers go up from the crowd around Palmer,” Lee
Trevino said. “And I never knew whether he’d made a birdie or just
hitched up his pants.”
Palmer, of Latrobe, Pa., attended Wake Forest University on a golf
scholarship. At age 24, he was selling paint and living in Cleveland,
just seven months removed from a three-year stint in the Coast Guard
when he entered the national sporting consciousness by winning the 1954
U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit.
“That victory was the turning point in my life,” he said. “It gave me
confidence I could compete at the highest level of the game.”
Palmer’s victory set in motion a chain of events. Instead of
returning to selling paint, Palmer played the next week in the Waite
Memorial in Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pa., where he met Winifred Walzer, who
would become his wife of 45 years until her death in 1999. On Nov. 17,
1954, Palmer announced his intentions to turn pro, and golf would never
be the same.
In his heyday, Palmer famously swung like he was coming out of his shoes.
“What other people find in poetry, I find in the flight of a good drive,” Palmer said.
He unleashed his corkscrew swing motion, which produced a piercing
draw, with the ferocity of a summer squall. In his inimitable
swashbuckling style, Palmer succeeded with both power and putter. In a
career that spanned more than six decades, he won 62 PGA Tour titles
between 1955 and 1973, placing him fifth on the Tour’s all-time victory
list, and collected seven majors in a seven-year explosion between the
1958 and 1964 Masters.
Palmer didn’t lay up or leave putts short. His go-for-broke style
meant he played out of the woods and ditches with equal abandon, and
resulted in a string of memorable charges. At the 1960 U.S. Open at
Cherry Hills near Denver, Palmer drove the first green and with his
trademark knock-kneed, pigeon-toed putting stance went out and birdied
six of the first seven holes en route to shooting 65 and winning the
title in a furious comeback.
“Palmer on a golf course was Jack Dempsey with his man on the ropes,
Henry Aaron with a three-and-two fastball, Rod Laver at set point, Joe
Montana with a minute to play, A.J. Foyt with a lap to go and a car to
catch,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray.
Even Palmer’s setbacks were epic. He double-bogeyed the 18th hole
at Augusta in the 1961 Masters after accepting congratulations from a
spectator he knew in the gallery. Palmer lost playoffs in three U.S.
Opens, the first to Jack Nicklaus in 1962; the second to Julius Boros in
1963; and the third to Billy Casper in 1966 in heart-breaking fashion.
Palmer blew a seven-stroke lead with nine holes to go in regulation at
the Olympic Club and lost to Casper in an 18-hole playoff the next day.
Arnold Daniel Palmer, born Sept. 10, 1929, grew up in the
working-class mill town of Latrobe, in a two-story frame house off the
sixth tee of Latrobe Country Club, where his father, Milfred “Deacon”
Palmer, was the greenskeeper and professional.
Palmer was 3 years old when his father wrapped his hands around a
cut-down women’s golf club in the classic overlapping Vardon grip, and
instructed him to, “Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it hard again.”
Palmer’s combination of matinee-idol looks, charisma and blue-collar
background made him a superstar just as golf ushered in the television
era. He became Madison Avenue’s favorite pitchman, accepting an array of
endorsement deals that generated millions of dollars in income on
everything from licensed sportswear to tractors to motor oil and even
Credit goes to agent Mark McCormack, who sold the
Palmer personality and the values he represented rather than his status
as a tournament winner. Palmer’s business empire grew to include a
course-design company, a chain of dry cleaners, car dealerships, as well
as ownership of Bay Hill Resort & Lodge in Orlando. He even bought
Latrobe Country Club, which his father helped build with his own hands
and where as a youth Palmer was permitted only before the members
arrived in the morning or after they had gone home in the evening.
Palmer designed more than 300 golf courses in 37 states, 25 countries
and five continents (all except Africa and Antarctica), including the
first modern course built in China, in 1988.
Palmer led the PGA Tour money list four times, and was the first
player to win more than $100,000 in a season. He played on six Ryder Cup
teams, and was the winning captain twice. He is credited with
conceiving the modern Grand Slam of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open
and PGA Championship during a conversation with golf writer Bob Drum on
a flight to Ireland for the 1960 Canada Cup. Palmer won the Masters
four times, the British Open twice and the U.S. Open once.
It was Palmer
who convinced his colleagues they could never consider themselves
champions unless they had won the Claret Jug. Nick Faldo, during
Palmer’s farewell at St. Andrews in 1995 may have put it best when he
said, “If Arnold hadn’t come here in 1960, we’d probably all be in a
shed on the beach.” Mark O’Meara went a step further. “He made it
possible for all of us to make a living in this game,” he said.
In 1974, Palmer was one of the original inductees into the World Golf
Hall of Fame. As he grew older, a shaky putter let Palmer down, but his
popularity never waned. The nascent Senior PGA Tour hitched its star to
golf’s first telegenic personality when Palmer turned 50. He relished
winning again and became a regular on the senior circuit, remaining
active until 2006.