Arnold Palmer, a cultural icon who was “The King” of golf, died Sunday at age 87.
But while Palmer has died, his legacy will continue to be felt as long as the game of golf is played, and played competitively.
The King of Golf
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born September 10, 1929 in Latrobe, Pa., the son of the head pro and greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club, introducing him to the game of golf at a young age.
Palmer attended Wake Forest on a golf scholarship, but after the death of close friend and teammate Bud Worsham in a car accident, Palmer dropped out of school and joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to golf, he won the U.S. Amateur in 1954, and turned professional.
Palmer’s first pro win came at the 1955 Canadian Open, before his first major at the 1958 Masters. Palmer won seven major championships (1958, ’60, ’62, ’64 Masters, ’60 U.S. Open, ’61 and ’62 Open Championship), and narrowly missed the career grand slam with three runner-up finishes in the PGA Championship.
While Palmer’s major championships were all within a seven-year span, he won at least one event on the PGA Tour every season from 1955 to 1971, before his final win in February 1973. In all, Palmer totaled 95 professional wins, including 62 on the PGA Tour.
The King earned his fame and reputation in his four triumphs at The Masters. Golf was once thought to be a sport that was impossible to televise, and when networks did begin coverage, it was only of a few holes of the vast venue of a golf course. The first televised Masters was in 1956, just as Palmer’s career was beginning.
Palmer, a charismatic and handsome player, was perfect for the television cameras, and audiences were enthralled by watching Palmer prevail over the field. Palmer, the game of golf at large, and golf on television all grew up during what many consider a “golden age,” as Palmer won four out of seven Masters tournaments from 1958-64.
Palmer’s style was to be aggressive, similar to many of the fearless players of today, and many have called Palmer a swashbuckler. Palmer would take the risks necessary to pull off the big shot, and in doing so gained legions of fans known as “Arnie’s Army.”
Palmer’s connection with The Masters extended from his final win in 1964 to the present day. Since 2007, Palmer served as the honorary starter of The Masters, hitting the ceremonial first tee shot each year, with Jack Nicklaus joining in the ritual since 2010 and Gary Player since 2012.
Palmer, who was the 1960 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, played on six Ryder Cup teams between 1961-73, and was the last playing captain of a Ryder Cup team in 1963, before he was a non-playing captain in 1975. None of the seven U.S. Ryder Cup teams with Palmer involvement lost the event. Palmer was also the U.S. captain at the 1996 President’s Cup, another American victory.
When Palmer moved on to the Champions Tour, the PGA Tour’s division for players 50 and older, he won 10 times, including five of the tour’s “majors”, between 1980-88.
The King of Business
Palmer had one of the great on-course careers in PGA Tour history, but remembering Palmer only for his golf accomplishments would not fully embody the legacy of The King.
Palmer and his legendary longtime manager Mark McCormack founded Arnold Palmer Enterprises, a company which managed Palmer’s licensing, endorsements, appearances and commercial associations.
This includes his work as a course architect, as Palmer helped build over 200 courses worldwide, including negotiations for the first golf course in China in 1982. His most famous design is Bay Hill, the club which he also owns in Orlando, which hosts the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the biggest non-major tournaments on the PGA Tour. For years, many players have used the event in late March as a final tune-up for The Masters, resulting in a great field; Tiger Woods has won the event eight times, while the reigning champion is Jason Day, the world’s top-ranked player.
Palmer also designed two other active PGA Tour venues (Kapalua Plantation, TPC Boston), as well as The K Club in Ireland, which hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup.
Starting in 1991, Palmer partnered with businessman Joseph Gibbs to work towards launching a cable channel with 24-hour golf programming, and on January 17, 1995, Golf Channel went on the air. Today, Golf Channel is a large part of the PGA Tour’s broadcasting rights contract, and can be seen in over 79 million homes.
Palmer’s business legacy also includes the Arnold Palmer, a drink which mixes sweet tea and lemonade, and is sold in country clubs and convenience stores alike nationwide. An anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Sunday night remarked that, while many do not necessarily know of Arnold Palmer’s golf legacy, nearly everyone knows what “an Arnold Palmer” entails.
After Winnie, Palmer’s wife of 45 years, died of cancer in 1999, Palmer began planning the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, a 285-bed facility which opened in 2006 in Orlando. When discussing Palmer’s legacy in a statement on Sunday, Tiger Woods recalled that both of his children were born at the Winnie Palmer hospital.
The King of Kindness
Beyond his tangible golf and business accomplishments, many stories have been told since the news broke of Palmer’s passing about his simple kindness. Many men who played on the PGA Tour after Palmer have said they got advice from him to look people in the eye, and to sign autographs legibly, when out meeting fans. While Palmer had lots of fans, he always seemed to have time for all of them.
Palmer was a Freemason from 1958 until his death, and was also a licensed pilot from the late-1950s until 2011. The ability to fly himself around the world, first playing golf and then as an ambassador for the game, enabled Arnold Palmer to be Arnold Palmer, and still, by all accounts, be the great family man that he was with his two children, four grandchildren (including PGA Tour player Sam Saunders), and nine great-grandchildren.
In 2012, just after his 83rd birthday, Palmer was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by U.S. Congress. He is one of just seven athletes given the honor (Roberto Clemente, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus). Upon giving Palmer the award, then-House speaker John Boehner summed up Palmer’s contributions wonderfully.
“He didn’t set out to change the game,” Boehner said. “But he did. Arnold Palmer democratized golf. And made us think that we too could go out and play, and made us believe we could do anything really. All we had to do was go out and try.”
Arnold Palmer was, despite a fantastic career, not the greatest golfer of all-time, but he is the most iconic and still, 52 years after his final major championship, perhaps the most beloved.
Arnold Palmer is The King. And while his life has ended, his legacy will be long-lived.
Fun fact: Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, attended the same high school as Arnold Palmer in Latrobe, Pa., and graduated one year ahead of Palmer.
Arnold Palmer Career Statistics (PGA Tour)
245 top fives
388 top 10’s
574 made cuts
$1,861,857 career earnings
1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 Masters champion
1960 U.S. Open champion
1961, 1962 Open champion
1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1975 Ryder Cup
22-8-2 Ryder Cup record
17 consecutive seasons with a win (1955-71), tied for most all-time
1974 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee
10 Champions Tour wins
5 Champions Tour major championships