Before there was Tiger Woods, before there was Jack Nicklaus, there was Arnold Palmer. From the mid 1950s through the 1960s AP was golf’s most popular star, and, arguably, one of the most popular athletes in any sport worldwide. He is generally credited with transforming the sport of golf from a “boutique” sport enjoyed primarily by a small number of wealthy people at exclusive clubs to a mainstream sport enjoyed by middle and working class people.
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born in Latrobe, PA on September 10, 1929. His father, Milfred (Deacon) Palmer, was employed as head pro and greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club. AP learned the game from him and honed his skills on that course. He attended Wake Forest University but left after three years. After a short stint as a paint salesman, he joined the Coast Guard. However, he continued to work on his golf game. In 1954 he won the US Amateur. He turned pro the next year, and golf would never be the same.
In the 1950s televised sports was in its infancy. Few events were televised and those that were, did not normally attract a wide audience. Except, perhaps, for the US Open, few fans watched golf on tv at all. AP came along at just the right time. He was a natural for tv. In addition to his outsized talent and his go-for-broke, come-from-behind playing style, he was handsome, rugged and telegenic. Furthermore, in contrast to most golfers of the day, he came from a humble background, so the average, everyday fan could relate to him. He quickly became golf’s first tv sports superstar. In the 1960s AP, along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player became known as the sport’s “Big Three.”
On the course, fans would follow him from hole to hole, anticipating something exciting, imploring him to make one of his patented “charges.” These fans became known as “Arnie’s Army.” Many times he gave them what they wanted. For example, in 1960 he came from seven strokes behind to win the US Open after driving the green on the opening hole, a 346 yard par 4. He shot 65 and won by two strokes. Moreover, even on those occasions when he did not win, he gave the crowd the excitement it craved.
Most golf historians credit him for making the PGA Tour what it is today in terms of popularity and money. In AP’s day, the prizes were paltry by today’s standards. In his entire Tour career, AP earned less than $2 million on the course, although he earned many times that off the course. Today, even average Tour golfers routinely earn more in a month! Additionally, when he turned 50 he joined the Seniors Tour. At that time it was struggling, primarily for lack of name recognition and public interest. His presence guaranteed its success.
In addition, he played a significant role in elevating the status of The (British) Open to “major” status. In the early 1950s few American golfers deigned to play The Open. The travel was arduous; the prizes were small; and the links style was unfamiliar and unappealing. AP changed all of that. In 1960, at the urging of his agent, he entered The Open in Scotland. AP had already won the 1960 Masters and US Open. His agent convinced him that if he could add Open, matching the legendary Walter Hagan, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, it would make him a worldwide sports star. AP lost a thriller by one stroke, but he became a worldwide sports star nonetheless. For all of the above reasons he earned the sobriquet “The King,” and deservedly so.
It is said that the most telling opinions are those of one’s peers. The following are a few examples from fellow golfers, which will illustrate the esteem in which AP was held:
- Lee Trevino – “I used hear cheers go up from the crowd around Palmer, and I never knew whether he’d made a birdie or [merely] hitched up his pants.”
- Sam Snead – “Palmer went to bed at night with charisma, and the next morning he woke up with more.”
- Tiger Woods – “If it [weren’t] for Arnold golf wouldn’t be as popular as it is now. If it [weren’t] for him and his excitement, his flair, the way he played, golf would not have had that type of excitement. And that’s why he’s ‘The King.’ “
- Martin Kaymer – “He inspired millions of people. That’s what we, as humans, should try to do.”
- Phil Mickelson – (Upon AP’s death.) “There’s a hole in the game that can’t be filled.”
AP won 62 PGA tournaments during his stellar career, including seven “majors.” He retired from tournament golf at the conclusion of the 2006 season. AP died on September 25, 2016 at the age of 87.
Some further points of information:
- AP enjoyed an extremely diverse and lucrative career off the course. For example, he helped found the Golf Channel; he designed and built golf curses, including the first one in the People’s Republic of China; he owns the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, which is the venue for the PGA’s Arnold Palmer Invitational; and he was a long-time pitchman for various products on tv, most notably Pennzoil.
- He played on six Ryder Cup teams, all of which the US won.
- He overcame a fear of flying to become an avid pilot, holding a pilot’s license for some 50 years.
- AP was a personal friend of former President Dwight Eisenhower, an avid golfer. They played together on many occasions, and Eisenhower was often a guest in his house. A painting autographed by the former president’s hangs in his house.
- For many years he was an “honorary starter” for the Masters Tournament.
- In 1974 he became one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
- In 2000 Golf Digest ranked him as the sixth greatest golfer of all time.
- In 2004 he became the first golfer to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
- He is one of the few celebrities to have had a drink named after him. The “Arnold Palmer” is a non-alcoholic drink that is three parts iced tea and one part lemonade. (According to popular lore, a woman overheard AP order the concoction at a bar and requested “that Palmer drink.”
- AP’s grandson, Sam Saunders, is also a professional golfer.
In my opinion, AP had as much an impact on his sport as any other athlete, except, perhaps, for Babe Ruth and Muhammed Ali. Rest in peace Arnie. You will be missed.