Golf’s Most Beloved Figure, Arnold Palmer, Dies At 87
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.
Reaction poured in from “Arnie’s Army” of admirers in the world of golf.
“We loved him with a mythic American joy,” said Palmer biographer James Dodson. “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, a moment that you never forget, that’s Arnold Palmer in spades. He’s the defining figure in golf.”
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.”
Golfweek subscriber Bob Conn of Guilford, Conn., in a letter to the editor, captured the loyalty and devotion that the public felt for Palmer.
“If Arnold Palmer sent me a personal letter asking me to join the cleanup crew at Bay Hill, I would buy a green jumpsuit, stick a nail in a broom handle, grab some Hefty garbage bags and shake his hand when I arrived.”
It wasn’t just the fans. His fellow competitors revered him, and the next generation and the generation after that worshiped him. When reporters at the 1954 U.S. Amateur asked Gene Littler to identify the golfer as slender as wire and as strong as cable cracking balls on the practice tee, Littler said: “That’s Arnold Palmer. He’s going to be a great player some day. When he hits the ball, the earth shakes.”
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.
Though for decades Palmer has made his winter home in Orlando, Fla., he never lost touch with his western Pennsylvania roots in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains.
“Of all the places I’ve been, there isn’t any place that I’m more comfortable than I am right here,” he told Golfweek in 2009 in Latrobe ahead of his 80th birthday.
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 Japanese tearooms. 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.
Palmer maintained a high profile in the game, presiding over the Arnold Palmer Invitational every March, the only living player with his name attached to a PGA Tour event. He also served as the longtime national spokesperson for the USGA’s member program, and was an original investor and frequent guest on Golf Channel. To countless others, he became known for his eponymous drink consisting of equal parts iced tea and lemonade.
On Sept. 12, 2012, Palmer was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He became just the sixth athlete to receive the honor. Coupled with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that he was awarded in 2004, gave him both of the highest honors that the U.S. can give to a civilian.
Palmer, who gave up his pilot’s license in 2011, had been in deteriorating health since late 2015. A ceremonial tee shot at the 2015 British Open was his last public golf shot. Palmer looked increasingly frail in public appearances at the API in March and as an onlooker instead of an active participant during the opening tee shot at the 2016 Masters in April.
“Winnie once said to me, ‘When Arnold Palmer gives up flying his airplane and his ability to hit a golf ball, he won’t be with us long,’ ” said Dodson, the biographer.
Palmer is survived by his second wife, Kit, daughters Amy Saunders and Peggy Wears, six grandchildren, including Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour.
As a measure of his popularity, Palmer, like Elvis Presley before him, was known simply as “The King.” But in a life bursting from the seams with success, Palmer never lost his common touch. He was a man of the people, willing to sign every autograph, shake every hand, and tried to look every person in his gallery in the eye.