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Arnold Palmer, the People’s Champion, Dies at 87
By David Shefter, USGA Senior Staff Writer
Arnold Palmer, a three-time USGA champion and seven-time major champion whose charismatic and charming personality helped popularize golf in the late 1950s and early 1960s, passed away on Sunday, Sept. 25 in Pittsburgh, Pa., at the age of 87.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Palmer died at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been undergoing heart tests since last Thursday.
“Arnold Palmer will always be a champion, in every sense of the word,” said Mike Davis, executive director/CEO of the USGA. “He inspired generations to love golf by sharing his competitive spirit, displaying sportsmanship, caring for golfers and golf fans, and serving as a lifelong ambassador for the sport. Our stories of him not only fill the pages of golf’s history books and the walls of the museum, but also our own personal golf memories. The game is indeed better because of him, and in so many ways, will never be the same.”
Some golfers collected more wins and major championships, but few could rival Palmer’s popularity among the masses. His go-for-broke style of play appealed to fans and his ability to engage with people inspired legions of followers that dubbed themselves “Arnie’s Army.”
Palmer was the first iconic superstar of sport’s television age, which began in the 1950s, and he connected with people like no other golfer before him. Because of Palmer, who came from humble beginnings in Latrobe, Pa., the game transitioned from an upper-class pastime to a sport accessible to the middle and working classes.
“Arnold’s place in history will be as the man who took golf from being a game for the few to a sport for the masses,” said Jack Nicklaus, eight-time USGA champion, 18-time major champion and Palmer’s fiercest rival. “He was the catalyst who made that happen.”
Added two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Trevino: “Arnold is the greatest role model that any sport ever had. Study that man. Look at the way he loves the game, conducts himself and treats other people. Arnold Palmer is the one you want to be like.”
Photos: The Life of Arnold Palmer
See rare images of the King, from his childhood to his incredible rise as golf's greatest ambassador.
Palmer claimed seven major titles, including the 1960 U.S. Open in dramatic fashion when he carded a final-round 65 at Cherry Hills Country Club in suburban Denver to overcome a seven-shot deficit. He won four Masters (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964) and two British Opens (1961, 1962). The only missing title from the career Grand Slam was a PGA Championship, in which he tied for second three times.
Palmer, who was the honorary chairman of the USGA Members Program since its inception in 1975, posted 62 PGA Tour victories, 10 Champions Tour victories, including the 1981 U.S. Senior Open, and was the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year twice (1960 and 1962). He was the Tour’s leading money winner four times (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1963), Sports Illustrated’sSportsman of the Year in 1960, the USGA’s Bob Jones Award recipient in 1971 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
In 2012, Palmer became the sixth athlete to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, joining the likes of Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens, Joe Louis and Byron Nelson. Nicklaus, who became a close friend of Palmer’s in later years even as their on-course rivalry became a battle of their business empires, received the honor in 2015.
“I’m particularly proud of anything the House and Senate agree on,” Palmer said at the ceremony, tongue in cheek. The measure passed 422-1 in the House and 100-0 in the Senate.
Palmer was born on Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, where his father, Deacon Palmer, was the head professional and superintendent at Latrobe Country Club. Palmer often accompanied his father as he maintained the course and young Arnold learned everything about the game from his dad, including etiquette and how to treat others.
Palmer attended Wake Forest University, where a golf scholarship now bears his name. Palmer left the North Carolina school after his close friend, Bud Worsham, the brother of 1947 U.S. Open champion Lew Worsham, died in a car accident. Palmer enlisted in the United States Coast Guard, where he served for three years while maintaining his golf skills when time permitted. He later became a paint salesman in Ohio, but in 1954 his life changed forever.
When Palmer won the U.S. Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit (Mich.), defeating Robert Sweeny, 1 up, in the 36-hole championship match, he decided to give professional golf a try.
“Winning the National Amateur Championship gave me the confidence to do what I really wanted to do with my life,” said Palmer, who before than had pictured himself as a businessman who would compete in top amateur competitions. “Not only was it one of my proudest moments, it led to me going out on tour as a professional golfer. And, obviously, it led to everything afterward.”
Palmer married Winifred Walzer, whom he met at a Pennsylvania tournament, in 1955. Later that year, he claimed the Canadian Open for his first pro victory.
Three years later, Palmer earned the first of his four Masters victories, cementing himself as one of golf’s leading stars. In 1960, he signed with pioneering sports agent Mark McCormack, becoming McCormack’s first client in what would become one of the world’s leading management companies, International Management Group (IMG).
Through endorsement deals and his charismatic presence, Palmer became the face of golf. Fans enjoyed his unorthodox swing and hard-charging style of play.
Sometimes, that “Army” created a distraction for other players, but everyone knew Palmer was bringing new followers to the game.
“I like playing in front of the ‘Army,’” said 1965 PGA Championship winner Dave Marr. “It was wild at times. When Arnold teed up his ball, they cheered. And if I had walked on water, they wouldn’t have noticed. But I enjoyed the excitement of all those people, and I think the Army was good for golf.”
Palmer claimed his second Masters title in April 1960, then produced one of the greatest comebacks in U.S. Open history in June at Cherry Hills. Trailing 54-hole leader Mike Souchak by seven strokes, most people counted Palmer out, including Pittsburgh sports reporter Bob Drum, who chronicled Palmer’s career.
“I asked Drum [in the locker room between rounds] what a 65 would do for me,” Palmer recalled. “He said, ‘For you, it would do nothing.’ That really irritated me.”
Angered by the perceived lack of support, Palmer drove the green on the par-4 first hole and birdied six of the first seven holes for a 30 on the outgoing nine. His final-round 65 was good enough for a two-stroke victory over Nicklaus, then a 20-year-old amateur. Ben Hogan had a chance to win a record fifth U.S. Open, but his third shot on the par-5 17th hole found water and he tied for ninth.
When Palmer finished off his 65, he tossed his visor into the air.
With the first two majors in his possession, Palmer did what few Americans of that era did: he competed in The Open Championship. While many U.S. players skipped the event due to the travel rigors and the quirkiness of links golf, McCormack convinced Palmer that competing overseas would hone his game and elevate his global status.
Palmer’s quest for the Grand Slam, a term that he and Drum reportedly came up with over cocktails on the trans-Atlantic flight, came up one stroke short, as Kel Nagle edged Palmer on the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. Palmer, however, won the next two Open Championships, at Royal Birkdale in England and Royal Troon in Scotland, respectively, and his presence helped to revitalize global interest in the world’s oldest major.
Palmer won 29 PGA Tour events between 1960 and 1963, including five majors.
Palmer’s chief rivals in the 1960s were Nicklaus and Gary Player. It was Nicklaus who denied Palmer a second U.S. Open title in 1962. Playing in his backyard at Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh, Palmer lost an 18-hole playoff to the upstart Nicklaus. Palmer had other chances at U.S. Open glory. In 1963 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he lost in a playoff to Julius Boros, and in 1966 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Billy Casper overcame a seven-stroke deficit on the final nine holes to force a Monday playoff. In the 18-hole playoff, Casper’s 69 bettered Palmer by four strokes.
Palmer finished second again the following year at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., finishing four shots behind Nicklaus. He never contended in another U.S. Open.
But in 1980, senior golf saw a rise in popularity and in 1981, the USGA lowered the age restriction of its fledgling U.S. Senior Open from 55 to 50. Some dubbed it the “Arnold Palmer Rule.” Palmer, then 51, won his only U.S. Senior Open in 1981 at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, edging Bob Stone and Casper in an 18-hole playoff.
Palmer finished second to Miller Barber by two shots three years later at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.
In 1994 at Oakmont, Palmer, then 64, made his final U.S. Open appearance after receiving a special exemption. Ten years later, he played in the Masters for a final time. It was his 50th consecutive appearance at Augusta National Golf Club, where he had become an honorary member. A year later, he made his final appearance in any major in the U.S. Senior Open at NCR Country Club, in Kettering, Ohio.
Palmer was larger than life off the course. He continued to endorse products and companies.
In 2005, the USGA honored Palmer’s legacy when it renovated its museum at its Far Hills, N.J., headquarters. Palmer attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, the world’s premier center of golf artifacts and memorabilia. A room is dedicated to Palmer, featuring many artifacts from his Hall-of-Fame career, including the visor he tossed into the gallery after winning the 1960 U.S. Open.
Palmer’s career off the course also includes his ownership of Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla., site of the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational on the PGA Tour, helping to found Golf Channel with businessman Joe Gibbs, negotiating to build the first golf course in the People’s Republic of China, and the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
Palmer formed his own golf course design company in 1972 and designed some 200 courses, including Bay Hill, site of Tiger Woods’ first of three U.S. Junior Amateur victories in 1991, and the Bay Course at Kapalua in Maui, Hawaii, which hosted the 1998 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
Palmer even has a drink named after him, a combination of iced tea and lemonade.
While Palmer earned approximately $1.8 million in 734 PGA Tour starts covering 53 years, his net worth far exceeded that. In 2012, Golf Digest reported that Palmer was No. 3 among golfers in yearly earnings at $36 million, which ranked him behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and ahead of Nicklaus.
Palmer was an avid pilot, flying for more than 50 years. The regional airport in Latrobe was renamed Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in 1999. There is a statue of Palmer holding a golf club in front of the airport’s entrance, which was unveiled in 2007.
Palmer’s first wife of 45 years, Winnie, died in 1999 at the age of 65 due to cancer. He married Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in 2005. His grandson, Sam Saunders, is a professional golfer who has played in numerous PGA Tour and Web.com Tour events.
CLICK HERE to view his video tribute.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at [email protected]