Golfing legend Arnold Palmer has died at 87.
He died Sunday evening at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Shadyside, a tertiary care hospital in Pittsburgh. NPR confirmed his death with UPMC’s media relations manager, Stephanie Stanley and in a statement by United States Golf Association issued via Twitter.
Palmer won 62 PGA Tour events, fifth on the all-time list. He won golf’s biggest titles: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open. He won seven majors in all.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that made Palmer an iconic sports figure.
He wasn’t the greatest male golfer of all time. That title usually prompts a debate about Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods or Ben Hogan, maybe Sam Snead. But the most important player? It’s fairly unanimous that Arnold Palmer was, true to his nickname, the King.
Palmer strapped a moldy, staid game on his back and gave it new life. He ignited golf’s popularity in the 1960s as he became the sport’s first TV star.
“He was someone who looked like an NFL halfback,” says ESPN.com senior writer Ian O’Connor. “He had arms like a blacksmith and giant hands, and he had those rugged good looks. He was just a different golfer. Nobody had ever really seen anything like him in that sport.”
Palmer’s arrival as a champion pro in the late 1950s dovetailed with the emerging medium of television.
Whether he was winning or pitching products, Palmer’s looks, athleticism and talent made him a natural for TV.
But that was only part of what transformed admiring fans into a devoted following that became known as Arnie’s Army.
THE PEOPLE’S GOLFER
Palmer grew up in a working class home in Latrobe, Pa., and ultimately he brought the game to the same kinds of people.
“Golf was always considered a blue blood, country club, elitist sport,” says O’Connor. “Arnold Palmer gave the sport to people who worked for members of the country club set.”
He’d play with his shirt tail hanging out. He’d flick away a cigarette before hitting, then swing for the fences and grimace like an average duffer if the result was bad. O’Connor says the class conflict was a motivating factor in Palmer’s career.
So was Palmer’s dad, known as Deacon.
HIT It AGAIN
Milfred J. “Deacon” Palmer was a greenskeeper, golf pro, and, Arnold often said, the man who taught him everything he knew. Deacon was known for his honesty, and toughness. Especially with his son.
“He was tough on me. He never backed off,” Palmer said in a 2015 interview. “He played tough, worked hard, and he died a tough guy. He played 27 holes of golf the day he passed.”
It was Deacon who introduced Arnold to golf, with the instructions “hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again.”
Palmer’s mom Doris softened the hard edges. A friendly woman, golf historians say Doris Palmer gave Arnold his people skills, which were a critical part of his legacy.
Arnold Palmer was a genuinely nice guy.
THE KING AND HIS ARMY
“I’ve often said that Arnold puts up with people that neither you or I would put up with,” says Doc Giffin.
He was Palmer’s personal assistant for more than 50 years. Giffin remembers the many moments of Palmer walking among throngs of fans as he strode down fairways – the King and his army. Or, Palmer talking to people in the gallery, joking with them, making paying customers feel like he wanted them there at the course.
Palmer would also take great care when signing autographs. One of his pet peeves was modern day athletes scribbling their names. Illegible autographs, Palmer thought, cheapened the fan’s experience.
But judging by his golfing success, Palmer knew when to tune out the adoring masses and focus on himself.
Most of the time.
There was that final hole of the final round of the 1961 Masters. Palmer had a one-stroke lead.
“And [he] had the ball in the fairway at the 18th hole,” Giffin says, “and he saw a friend of his over at the ropes who waved him over. And he walked over there instead of staying with his golf ball. The man congratulated him on winning his second straight Masters (Palmer won in 1960). He said ‘thank you,’ went back to his ball, and knocked it in the trap.”
Palmer ended up with a six on the par-4, and he walked off the final green one stroke behind.
“And lost the Masters that it looked like he had it in the bag,” Giffin says. “And he said I’ll never let that happen again. And he learned his lesson.”
Palmer made amends a year later at the same tournament. In a playoff, he made a back-nine charge to win the 1962 Masters.
ARNIE AND JACK
Our greatest sports heroes often have a foil. In Palmer’s case, it was Jack Nicklaus.
In his book Arnie and Jack, Ian O’Connor chronicles a 50-year duel on golf courses and boardrooms, as the two men competed in the business world as well. Personality-wise, they were, at least in the early years of their rivalry, polar opposites. Palmer was the people’s champ — gregarious, comfortable in crowds, a go-for-broke style of player. Nicklaus, about 10 years younger, was reserved, some say aloof and more scientific about the game.
Nicklaus easily beat Palmer in the record books. His 18 major titles still are the most anyone’s won. Palmer had seven. But Palmer had the adoring fans.
For all their battles through the 1960’s, O’Connor says it was a moment in the early 2000s that prompted him to write his book.
Palmer and Nicklaus were well past their primes. O’Connor figures Arnie was in his early 70s and Jack, early 60s. They were paired together for a round at the Masters.
“They were putting on a green and Arnold finished,” O’Connor remembers, “and he picked up his ball and he walked over to the fans circling the green, and he sat down in a guy’s chair. Everyone got a big laugh. Meanwhile, Jack is standing over a putt and he’s grinding. He’s trying to make the cut, trying to contend, trying to win despite his age!”
“And he looked up and he shot Arnold a really angry stare. If looks could kill! And I happened to be there and it struck me that these guys have been battling, on and off the course, for so long. It’s probably the greatest rivalry in the sport’s history. That was the first seed [of the book].”
O’Connor says the two men competed on golf course design projects; they even competed for status as the top ambassador of the game.
But O’Connor says there’s no question the rivalry was tempered by friendship.
“I think deep down,” says O’Connor, “Jack knows he couldn’t have been Jack without Arnie and Arnie knows he couldn’t have been Arnie without Jack. There is respect and affection there.”
TOUCHED BY A KING
Palmer was a friend of presidents, but a man who never forgot his roots. He lived half the year in his native Latrobe. His dual appeal — charisma and humility — didn’t organically turn Palmer into a global, celebrity athlete. That happened with the help of Mark McCormack, whose IMG became the biggest sports marketing company in the world. Palmer was McCormack’s first major client.
While the two of them spread Palmer’s fame, golf started to boom. The number of players and courses increased dramatically in the 1960s. By some accounts, in the early part of the decade, Palmer’s heyday, 350 to 400 new courses were built each year.
It wasn’t all Palmer’s doing. But he lit a fuse. With equal parts swagger and humility when he played.
And a smile for strangers who came to the course to watch a golfer, and left feeling like they’d been touched by a King.