Even if he’d never picked up a golf club Arnold Palmer was destined to be known, such were the multiplicity and variety of his achievements. Today, it is no exaggeration to call him a legend
More than an understatement, it is woefully inaccurate to characterize Arnold Palmer simply as a man who hit drives and holed putts better than most. He was a giant of the game, certainly, but he also was a luminary businessman and pilot and so much more, a genuine visionary whose impeccable character, immense talents and solid work ethic saw him rise to become an American icon and one of the best global examples of the country’s promise and capabilities in the decades following World War II. Palmer wasn’t born with blue blood in his veins, but no one earned the right to be called The King more than him, and indeed he was just that to all who knew him or who saw him play.
Beyond golf, Palmer was in many respects the father of modern sports in general, especially with regard to the way sports are presented to the public and the high levels of remuneration enjoyed by today’s professional athletes.
The fact that “Arnie,” as he was known, won seven major championships and 88 other tournaments during a professional playing career that spanned more than half a century would have been sufficient to guarantee him a spot at the top table in golf’s Valhalla. But such feats only scratch the surface of Palmer’s life and legacy, which truly are the stuff of legend—a real one in this case.
Palmer was the product of humble origins, raised in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression with unshakable core values, a committed work ethic and an innate respect for human decency. Primarily, though, he had a genius for communication that transcended sporting arenas. His charisma and personality, as well as his fearless style of play, boosted golf’s popularity at a time when U.S. households were starting to invest in TV sets, automobiles and other consumer durables.
His relationship with Mark McCormack, his astute agent-manager and a visionary in his own right, set the template for players across all sports to define their worth to their employers and to capitalize on their commercial value to sponsors and advertisers. And Palmer’s alignment with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as the Big Three, so brilliantly marketed by McCormack throughout the 1960s, heralded a golden age of golf.
Palmer chewed the fat with Presidents, shared gags with comedians and rubbed shoulders with film stars, yet never once did he lose the common touch. To this very day, the upturned thumb is as much a part of his unique image as that diagonal, kaleidoscopic umbrella.
Part of his appeal, undeniably, was that he was hardly craven when it came to dealing with golf’s often intransigent authorities. But always a fair and honorable man, he never lost sight of his obligation to uphold the integrity of the game and to enhance the opportunities available to his fellow (and usually less fortunate) professionals.
At the height of his playing powers he started to design golf courses—ambitious, creative projects that ranged from luxury country club adornments to cutting-edge championship layouts to good, honest recreational fields of play for the public. And here, too, he was groundbreaking, in 1984 building the first course in the People’s Republic of China with his design partner Ed Seay.
Away from golf, Palmer became one of the first major sports stars to obtain a pilot’s license, and in 1976 he set a class record for the fastest flight around the world. His charitable initiatives have raised billions of dollars, particularly for the many medical projects that were dear to his heart, and he was also the driving force behind the founding of Golf Channel, in 1995.
In addition to being garlanded with myriad lifetime sporting honors, including the “Athlete of the Decade” award for the 1960s from the Associated Press and the Hickok Belt from Sports Illustrated, given to the 1960 Sportsman of the Year, Palmer received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009. He was also one of the inaugural 13 members of the World Golf Hall of Fame when it was founded in 1974.
In recent years, much to his own amusement, his name has become known to a younger, non-golfing generation as synonymous with the refreshing and popular drink consisting of iced tea and lemonade, and in places as far away as Japan he’s known more for a line of fashionable American clothing.
But Arnie’s Army and his adoring fairway fans will always remember Palmer for the fizz with which his style of play brightened up their lives and confounded the odds even as (echoing the words of Walter Hagen from a bygone era) the man himself never forgot to smell the roses along the way.
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born on September 10, 1929, the eldest of four children born to Milfred “Deacon” Palmer and his wife Doris in the industrial town of Latrobe at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in Western Pennsylvania, some 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Along with his sisters Lois Jean (“Cheech”) and Sandy, and his brother Jerry, Arnold was given a classic working-class upbringing by a close-knit family whose members either worked on the land or at the local steel works.
He attended Latrobe High School, a year behind Fred Rogers who went on to create the pioneering children’s TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
When not at school, the young Palmer spent much of his spare time helping his father, the superintendent of Latrobe Country Club and later its professional, with all manner of duties, ranging from course maintenance work and caddying to shagging balls and minding the pro shop.
By the age of 17, Palmer already had won the West Pennsylvania junior and men’s amateur championships, and it was clear that he had an exceptional golfing talent which, honed by hard work, could take him far in the sport.
He earned a golf scholarship to Wake Forest University in North Carolina where he won three Southern Conference Championships. But his life took an unexpected turn in 1950 when his best friend and teammate, Bud Worsham, was killed in a car accident—a tragedy that led to Palmer quitting college during his senior year and joining the U.S. Coast Guard.
His Coast Guard career began at Cape May, New Jersey, where he built a nine-hole course between the base’s runways, and finished three years later in Cleveland, Ohio.
After his discharge in 1954, Palmer worked lenient hours as a paint company representative while spending most of his time restoring his game to its former sharpness at Canterbury Country Club in Beachwood, Ohio. The hard work paid off momentously in the fall when he took his long-overdue leap from “potential” to “prominence” by winning the U.S. Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit, beating celebrity entertainer and lifelong friend Don Cherry in the quarter-finals and suave investment banker Bob Sweeny by one hole in a close-fought 36-hole final.
A short while later, Palmer was invited to play in a tournament organized by bandleader Fred Waring at Shawnee Country Club in Shawnee-on-Delaware, Pennsylvania. During that week he made the acquaintance of 19-year-old Winifred Walzer, an interior design student at Pembroke College, an affiliated women’s academic body to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Within days he had proposed to “Winnie” and at that point he realized he needed a proper income to support her once they were married. Reluctantly, he cast aside plans to play in the following year’s Walker Cup match over the Old Course at St Andrews and turned pro. A few weeks later, Arnie and Winnie were man and wife.
A few months after that, Palmer made his Masters debut at Augusta National, the tournament and course, probably more than any others, that were to define him as a player. Arguably, his tie for tenth in 1955 was, echoing the words of Winston Churchill, “the end of the beginning” of his journey into the limelight.
It did not take Palmer long to secure his maiden victory on Tour: the 1955 Canadian Open at Weston Golf & Country Club in Toronto. This breakthrough triggered a succession of wins over the next three seasons, the highlight of which came in April 1958 with the first of what turned out to be four Green Jackets in just six years.
At the time, aged 28, he was the youngest winner of the Masters, but his youth didn’t prevent him from standing up for himself when he felt he had received an incorrect ruling on the short 12th hole during his final round. He had missed the green and his ball was plugged. Under local rules for the week, one of the wettest in the tournament’s history, he was entitled to a drop without penalty, but, controversially, the official accompanying his group didn’t see it that way.
In the end, Palmer played the ball as it lay and carded a double-bogey five, then went back to the spot, took a drop and got down for a three. It took another couple of holes before tournament host Bobby Jones decreed that Palmer could record a three on his scorecard. The King went on to lift his first Major crown by a solitary shot from defending champion Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins, and a legend was born. Spice was added by the fact that a number of servicemen from a nearby military base had attached themselves to his gallery that week, marking the first recorded gathering of what soon became known as “Arnie’s Army.”
By this time, Arnie and Winnie had a two-year-old daughter, Peggy, and a second, Amy, on the way. In addition, Palmer, tired of the all-night driving between tournaments that life as a touring pro seemed to entail, had started to take flying lessons at Latrobe Airport from experienced pilot and ultimately lifelong friend Babe Krinock.
After a comparatively modest 1959, Palmer hit the runway with considerable momentum in 1960—perhaps his annus mirabilis. Having chalked up four victories before even arriving at Augusta, he teed up as red-hot favorite in the Masters, and did not disappoint.
But he left it late and needed to birdie the final two holes to secure a one-shot success over Ken Venturi, who, ironically, had been his aggrieved playing partner on that final day two years previously.
Around this time, Palmer sealed his relationship with Mark McCormack who then proceeded to operate as his commercial agent on the basis of a handshake right up until McKormack’s death in 2003. No contract was ever drawn up between the two men, but the deal led to the creation of McCormack’s International Management Group (IMG), which swiftly became the market leader in the field of commercial sports rights and which represented Palmer for the rest of his life.
But McCormack did not have the resources or the wherewithal to juggle the King’s day-to-day minutiae (between golf, commercial, charitable or social commitments), so former Pittsburgh Press journalist Donald “Doc” Giffin joined Palmer during the mid-1960s and helped to organize his diary and office for more than half a century.
Next stop on Palmer’s increasingly rapid journey towards sporting immortality was the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver, Colorado. After 54 holes, though, he trailed by seven shots in a tie for 15th place and was apparently out of contention. But a conversation before the final round with a journalist friend, Bob Drum, who bluntly told him he had no chance, riled Palmer into playing one of the greatest rounds in the game’s history. His closing 65 lifted him from two over par to four under and a two-shot victory over 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus.
Three weeks later, Palmer travelled to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland for the centenary edition of the [British] Open. It was his debut appearance in golf’s oldest championship, but while flying across the Atlantic in the company of Drum he resolved that it certainly wouldn’t be his last. While assessing Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam of 1930 (the Opens and amateur championships of both Britain and the United States) during the journey, Palmer suggested to Drum that the [British] Open should be part of a modern Grand Slam, along with the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. At first Drum was skeptical, but by the time they arrived at the Home of Golf the idea had taken root and a new era for the game had dawned.
Appalling weather wreaked havoc across the Old Course that week but Palmer revelled in the challenge and finished one shot adrift in his quest for a third successive Major (behind Australian Kel Nagle). He was far from deterred by links golf despite its stark contrast with the game he had grown up playing, and over the following two summers he demonstrated exactly why his low, boring ball flight was so well suited to the windy conditions that invariably prevailed on Britain’s premier seaside courses.
So close with his first attempt, Palmer went one better in both 1961 and 1962, lifting the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale in northwest England and then at Troon on the west coast of Scotland. Thanks to his three-year Transatlantic spree, the [British] Open was restored to its former glory and nearly all the top American players have made a point of inking the year’s third Major into their schedules ever since.
Between 1960 and 1963, Palmer chalked up a total of 33 victories, but he still rued three Majors that eluded him during this period. The first was the 1961 Masters when—needing a par-four from the middle of the fairway on the 72nd hole to win—he allowed himself to be distracted by a friend in the gallery congratulating him, contrived to take six and lost by one to Gary Player. To some extent he gained revenge for that lapse 12 months later when he beat Player and Dow Finsterwald in an 18-hole playoff to claim his third Green Jacket.
His other two regrets were the U.S. Opens of 1962 and 1963. In 1962 at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, his own backyard, he lost an 18-hole playoff to Nicklaus. It was the Golden Bear’s first victory as a professional and the key difference between the protagonists was that Palmer three-putted 13 times across the 90 holes played while Nicklaus did so only once.
The following year at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, Palmer again found himself in a playoff—against Jacky Cupit and eventual winner Julius Boros—but a triple-bogey seven at the 11th hole dashed his hopes.
Normal service was resumed at the 1964 Masters, but after he had romped home by six shots the last thing to cross anyone’s mind was that this, Palmer’s seventh Major win, might be his last.
After Player claimed his third Major title in the 1962 PGA Championship at Aronimink in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, McCormack bracketed him with Palmer and Nicklaus, branded them as the “Big Three” and schemed a series of made-for-TV matches that NBC screened to record audiences throughout the rest of the decade. From those matches, commercially speaking, golf has never looked back.
Palmer continued to gather Tour titles for most of the next decade and became the first player to pass $1m in total prize money in 1968. But he blew his best chance to claim an eighth Major success in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Seven shots clear with just nine holes remaining, Palmer tumbled catastrophically into a tie with playing partner Billy Casper and another 18-hole playoff. This turnaround resulted from a combination of injudicious shots by Palmer and some inspired putting and shrewd percentage decisions by Casper. With his morale shattered, it was one-way traffic in the playoff as Casper closed out victory by four shots.
Palmer finished second in the U.S. Open for a fourth time in 1967 at Baltusrol in Springfield, New Jersey, four shots adrift of Nicklaus, but on that occasion his gallant efforts were eclipsed by his adversary’s clinical closing 65.
Palmer’s 61st and final PGA Tour victory was his fifth win in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in California’s Coachella Valley in 1973. Including his two [British] Open wins (not then recognized by the PGA Tour) and six Canada Cup team triumphs for the U.S. (two with Sam Snead and four with Nicklaus), Palmer garnered a further 19 titles around the world, culminating in the 1980 Canadian PGA Championship at Royal Mayfair in Edmonton, Alberta.
Around this time he became involved in the creation of the Senior PGA Tour (now thriving as the PGA Tour Champions) and won five senior Majors between 1980 and 1985, including the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Michigan, along with 10 other senior tournaments.
Palmer’s pivotal influence over the growth and ultimate success of the PGA Tour Champions mirrored in many respects his contributions a decade and a half earlier when the PGA Tour, the umbrella body that controlled the leading professionals’ tournament schedule across North America, split from the PGA of America.
Palmer had an ambivalent relationship with the PGA of America. Initially, he was perturbed that its protectionist rules prevented him from earning prize money during the first six months of his career on Tour and, until he had served a five-year apprenticeship, from playing in either the PGA Championship—the one Major he never won though he tied second in it three times—or the Ryder Cup.
These restraints of trade, along with archaic (now long banished) rules that prevented non-whites and handicapped players like his father (who had contracted polio as a child) from becoming PGA members especially stuck in his craw.
On the other hand, some of his finest hours in golf came with the PGA of America, most notably during the six Ryder Cup matches in which he played (1961-63-65-67-71-73) and the two in which he captained the U.S. team (1963, when he was the last playing captain on either side, and 1975). As a player, Palmer compiled one of the United States’ best individual records in the biennial contest: 23 points from 32 outings.
In addition to his other glittering prizes, Palmer won the Vardon Trophy for the PGA Tour’s lowest scoring average four times: in 1961, 1962, 1964, and 1967. In total, he played in 50 Masters Tournaments (1955-2004), 31 U.S. Opens (1953-94), 23 [British] Opens (1960-95) and 37 PGA Championships (1958-94).
After missing the cut at the 2005 U.S. Senior Open by 21 shots, Palmer brought the curtain down on his major career, and he retired from tournament play completely in October 2006 when he withdrew from the PGA Tour Champions’ Administaff Small Business Classic at Augusta Pines in Spring, Texas, after four holes due to dissatisfaction with his own play. He played the remaining holes but did not keep his score.
From 2007 to 2016, he served as honorary starter at the Masters and was joined by Nicklaus three years later and by Player (for an historic reuniting of the Big Three) in 2012.
In 734 PGA Tour career starts over 53 years, Palmer won $1,861,857—a paltry figure in comparison with today’s purses (which Palmer is largely credited with increasing)—but his off-course earnings both during and following his playing career ensured that he consistently remained at the head of the sport’s annual income chart. In 2015 he was again No.1 in that respect, with a reported net worth of $675m.
Thanks to licensing deals, endorsements, commercial partnerships and investments built up over more than half a century, Palmer, the consummate pitchman, enjoyed unprecedented business success for a sports performer. This also enabled him to make a couple of significant if sentimental purchases: Latrobe Country Club, where he grew up, in 1971 and, five years later, Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida, after a decade-long dalliance having first made its acquaintance during an exhibition match in 1966.
In 1979 Palmer took over the hosting of the Florida Citrus Open on the PGA Tour and moved it to Bay Hill, which has been its home, albeit with a number of different tournament titles, ever since. Today, the event is known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard and it is a firm favorite with many of the game’s leading players, not least Tiger Woods who has won it eight times.
One particular highlight from the Invitational came in 2004 when Palmer, then aged 74, lashed his second shot onto the water-guarded 18th green from more than 200 yards out using his driver. His celebrations with his caddie and grandson, Sam Saunders, son of Amy and now a PGA Tour player in his own right, will live long in the memory.
In 1995, he teamed up with TV and media entrepreneur Joseph E. Gibbs to launch the Golf Channel, the success of which as a forum for instruction, debate, entertainment and tournament coverage has, more than two decades later, exceeded all its distinguished founders’ initial expectations.
Another of his innovations was the Palmer Cup match between elite college golfers representing the U.S. and Europe (Great Britain & Ireland until 2003). The first match was played at Bay Hill in 1997 and the contest has taken place annually ever since, alternately in the U.S. and the British Isles. Despite its relatively recent introduction to the amateur calendar, it has become as much of a priority for American players as the far older (by more than seven decades) Walker Cup.
Dating back to the 1960s, Palmer oversaw the design or redesign of well over 300 golf courses, most of them in tandem with his co-architect Ed Seay, who passed away in 2007, aged 69, after an association stretching back more than three decades.
Apart from remodels of Pebble Beach Golf Links, Bay Hill, Laurel Valley and Cherry Hills (all venues dear to Palmer’s heart), they created a diverse array of great courses both at home and abroad. In the U.S. they fashioned four TPC courses (Piper Glen, Boston, River’s Bend and Twin Cities) and a host of other treasures while their overseas accomplishments were equally impressive. These included The K Club just outside Dublin in Ireland, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup, DLF Golf & Country Club in New Delhi, India, and the very first layout in the People’s Republic of China: Chung Shan Hot Springs in Zhongshan.
Even though Palmer was hit hard by the death from ovarian cancer of his beloved Winnie, aged 65, after 45 years of marriage in November 1999, Palmer’s sorrow propelled him to step up his already extensive charitable activities.
He had founded the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando in 1989, and shortly after her death he opened the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies as part of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center in the same city. His own personal brush with prostate cancer in 1997 also led to the creation of the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage, California, an especially poignant commitment because of his close friendship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Another cancer center, the Arnold Palmer Pavilion, opened in 2002 in Latrobe, where Winnie is also remembered through the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at Saint Vincent College. Shortly after her passing, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a personal friend of the Palmers, honored Winnie’s determination to prevent Latrobe from becoming over-commercialized by authorizing a $500,000 grant from the state’s department of conservation so that the 26-acre tract of land could become a preserved educational and recreational area.
In Latrobe, the city’s airport fittingly bears Palmer’s name as it’s where he learned to fly. What had been called the Longview Flying Field in 1924, became J.D. Hill Airport in 1928, the Latrobe Airport in 1935, and Westmoreland County Airport in 1978, in 1999—surely permanently—the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. Palmer grew up less than a mile from the runway where he watched the world’s first official airmail pickup in 1939, and now a statue of him holding a golf club stands out front. Palmer’s need to overcome his early fear of flying had led him to pursue a pilot’s license. Some 55 years later, he had logged nearly 20,000 hours of flight time in various aircraft, including his record round-the-world business-jet journey in the company of two Learjet pilots (James E. Bir and Lewis L. Purkey) and aviation writer Robert Serling.
They took off from Stapleton Airport in Denver, Colorado on May 17, 1976, and stopped briefly to refuel in Wales; Paris; Iran; Sri Lanka; Indonesia; Philippines; Wake Island in the western Pacific; and Honolulu. Palmer and his crew found that the most effective antidote for flight fatigue was humor, so they traded gags throughout. They arrived back in Denver on May 19 having completed their assignment in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds. After landing, Palmer said: “We didn’t wave the Stars and Stripes, we flew them.”
An honorary Blue Angel and Thunderbird, Palmer flew a wide variety of aircraft over the years, including the DC-9, the F15 and the F16, and he briefly took helicopter lessons. After a lifetime in the air, Palmer piloted a plane for the last time on January 31, 2011 when he flew from Palm Springs, where he had a winter home, to Orlando with his longtime official pilot and personal friend Pete Luster. They flew in Palmer’s Cessna Citation X, a plane Arnie helped to design. His pilot’s medical certificate expired the day of the flight and the aviator, then 81, chose not to renew it.
The previous year, Palmer received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award alongside Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, and his lifelong friend Russ Meyer, who was CEO of Cessna from 1975-2000 and who is now the company’s chairman emeritus.
On the consumer products side, Palmer is perhaps best known to younger generations as a drink consisting of iced tea and lemonade—a concoction he enjoyed over his lifetime. The name association dates to U.S. Open week at Cherry Hills in 1960. At the time, Palmer was in the habit of drinking iced tea with lemonade as his non-alcoholic preference and ordered one from the clubhouse bar following one of his rounds. A woman sitting nearby overheard him and ordered “that Palmer drink,” thus bestowing its name. An ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts documentary in 2012 about the history of the drink, also known as a “Half & Half” in many parts of the U.S., featured Palmer attributing the name to a similar incident at a golf club in Palm Springs when a woman copied his order at the bar.
In his personal life, Palmer re-married in 2005, exchanging vows with Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in Hawaii. His daughter Amy Palmer Saunders currently chairs the Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation, is married to Roy Saunders and is mother to PGA Tour player Sam Saunders. Palmer is also survived by his daughter Peggy Palmer Wears, six grandchildren (including Sam), nine great-grandchildren and sisters Sandra Sarady and Lois Jean Tilley.
Family man, brand ambassador, pilot, businessman, course designer and golf legend, someone once wrote that Arnold Palmer was a person all women wanted to be with and all men wanted to be. In a world where fame seems to be increasingly transient, there is a permanence about Palmer and his accomplishments. If his death in September 2016 marked the end of an era, his many friends and fans can take heart in the fact that his legacy will live on in his foundation and in the game he loved so dearly, and to which he gave so much.