FOR ALL HE ACCOMPLISHED ON THE GOLF COURSE, ARNOLD PALMER WILL ALSO BE REMEMBERED FOR HIS CHARISMA AND HUMILITY—AND BY THE COUNTLESS LIVES HE TOUCHED
ARNOLD PALMER, WHO DIED ON SUNDAY AT AGE 87, led an American life that will never be duplicated, so rooted was it in a lost time and a place and the sui generis composition of the man. The golf legend won his last major championship in 1964 and his last PGA Tour event in '73, but in the 43 years since, his status has only grown. He had a knack for making people feel better about themselves and about their prospects. As a player, he allowed his fans to join him in his unbridled assertiveness. He created a vicarious thrill unlike any player before him and none since. When his skills faded and his hair turned silver and then white, he exuded grandfatherly warmth that was also unmatched. For these and other reasons, he was not only the most beloved figure ever to play golf but also the rare golfer who was able to transcend a niche sport and become an international figure.
At the 2016 Masters, Palmer attended the festivities but did not hit a ceremonial opening tee shot alongside his friends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player—the trio had been marketed as the Big Three—and Nicklaus spoke about Palmer with notable sadness, already perhaps anticipating last week's news. In June, at the U.S. Open at Oakmont, 40 miles from Palmer's hometown of Latrobe, Pa., players and commentators paid tribute to the man known as the King, a nickname he said in a memoir being published this month he was never comfortable with. All of golf has been preparing itself for Palmer's death, which for millions of players around the world was almost like losing a parent. For decades, Chi Chi Rodriguez preached this message: "Every touring pro should bow down and pray to Arnold Palmer, for what he did for golf."
In the late 1950s and early '60s, Palmer, by virtue of his spectacular wins and losses, made golf a sport that enjoyed broad popularity on TV. All he had to do was contend, and he often did. It has been said that Palmer sold a million color TVs—nobody wanted to watch him perform his magic in black-and-white, not the man of the house, nor the lady of the house. Yes, the terms are old-fashioned: Palmer connected with conservative Middle America in ways that made him the envy of various presidents, Republicans in particular. He had an especially close relationship with Dwight Eisenhower.
Palmer was an odd sort of matinee idol. He had a rugged, regular-guy handsomeness—more out of the John Wayne school than anything else—but there was a physicality to him that drew both men and women to him. Over the decades he became fantastically rich, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He was a child of the Depression and the proud son of working-class parents, and he essentially lived a modest life, except for his penchant for private planes. Palmer was an accomplished pilot who at one point circumnavigated the globe in a particular class of plane faster than anyone had. In his everyday lunchtime grillroom conversation, he spoke of his flying adventures with the same enthusiasm he spoke of golf, which is saying something. The world has most likely never seen anybody who loved golf more than Palmer did. He played or hit balls almost every day. His late first wife, Winnie, used to say that her husband would not last long if he could no longer fly his own plane or hit balls. With great reluctance Palmer gave up his pilot's license in 2011, and he was hitting balls until close to his death.
Palmer didn't have the quick wit of, say, Muhammad Ali, but he did have a directness that endeared him to millions of people. Like a contemporary, Walter Cronkite, he was consistent, reliable and trustworthy. Asked how he made a 12 on a hole, Palmer said, "I missed the 15-footer for 11."
He was the first tour professional with his own raucous gallery. The original members of Arnie's Army were GIs from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Ga., and Palmer was at ease with the enlisted men, knocking back cold ones on those occasions when they landed at the same bar. For some years in the 1950s and '60s, Palmer was a smoker, a scotch-and-steak man, a night owl, but the protective press of his era never showed him that way. People who followed the game closely knew. He never pretended to be something other than what he was. Among other things, he was a college dropout (Wake Forest), an uninspired paint salesman (his job before turning pro at age 25) and a man capable of breathtaking impetuousness, on a Sunday afternoon with a title in the balance and in his private life too. He met Winnie Walzer, a 19-year-old college student, at an amateur event on a Tuesday in September 1954 and proposed to her that Saturday night. "Her dad hated my ass," Palmer once said. "He said, 'You're going to marry a golf pro?'"
They were married from 1954 until Winnie's death in '99. The Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando is a world-class center for neonatal care. The couple had two children, Amy and Peggy, who were largely shielded from the spotlight. Palmer won 62 events on the PGA Tour (he is fifth on the all-time list) and 10 more times on the Champions tour. In his 50s and early 60s, when Palmer was playing the senior tour, that circuit enjoyed its greatest popularity. He won one U.S. Open, in 1960, two British Opens (1961 and '62) and four Masters titles (1958, '60, '62 and '64). He never won a PGA Championship, the PGA of America's flagship event, and although he was a longtime member of the organization, as was his father before him, he had various enduring frustrations with the entity. He believed that the golf body at first discriminated against his father, Deacon, because he had difficulty walking as a result of childhood polio. Arnold also resented the fact that for the first six months of his professional career, he was serving an apprenticeship that prevented him from cashing checks he made from Tour events. Palmer had a wide stubborn streak and a long memory.
LIKE RONALD REAGAN and Warren Buffett, Palmer had a knack for reducing complex things to their essence. As a golfer he belonged to the see-ball, hit-ball school, and in his prime he drove it long and straight and putted as well as anybody. His swing had a slashing, muscular quality to it—there was nothing country club about his action—and that added to his popularity. He was the opposite of Ben Hogan in almost every way, and he succeeded Hogan as the best-known American golfer. The two men never enjoyed much of a rapport. Palmer once said, "He never called me anything except fella."
Palmer's ascendance came in 1960, at age 30, when he hit one of the most famous shots in history, driving the 346-yard par-4 1st hole in the final round of the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills outside Denver. That shot set-up a two-putt birdie, gave birth to the Palmer Charge and was the first blow in a final-round 65 that allowed Palmer to surge from behind and win by two over Nicklaus and four over Hogan. Palmer spent the rest of his life reviewing the costs of that win, which he believed contributed to his ultimately futile efforts to win a second U.S. Open despite being in contention many times. He started to dial back the aggressiveness that had made him so dangerous. He revered what he called "our national championship." He regarded that Open win as the most significant of his career, in part because of how much his own father valued it. When he started playing the British Open in 1960, Palmer revived interest in that championship at a time when many U.S. professionals couldn't be bothered with making the trip.
But it was his play at Augusta National, both brilliant and bone-headed, that defined his career. When he was approached to become a dues-paying member of the club in 1999, the first tour professional to be bestowed the honor, the invitation struck a deep chord in him. He was the winner of the 1954 U.S. Amateur, and the approval of the sophisticated, well-bred men who ran the USGA and populated the membership rolls at Augusta National meant more to him than he cared to let on. But the truth was that those men were far more in awe of Palmer than he was of them. As a businessman, they had nothing on him. Most notably, in 1995 he cofounded Golf Channel.
Palmer is on the Mount Rushmore of American sportsmen. In 1960 he won the Masters and the U.S. Open and was named SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sportsman of the Year. A golfer—a golfer!—was now talked about as not only an athlete, but also one who could be discussed in the same breath as Mickey Mantle and Cassius Clay and Frank Gifford. American golf had its first working-class hero, and the sport would never be the same.
Palmer signed the cover of that Sportsman issue thousands of times in his flowing script. There cannot be anybody anywhere who has signed more autographs than Arnold Palmer.
In his later years, the ceremonial opening tee shot at the Masters helped keep Palmer in the public eye. There's a silver replica of the Augusta National clubhouse at the front door of his Latrobe office and another at the SpringHill Suites in Latrobe, a hotel Palmer owned that's located on Arnold Palmer Drive. Palmer lost three U.S. Opens in playoffs, and in his mind he should have won yet another three. Even though he won his last major in 1964, Palmer felt, on a technical level, that he played his best golf between '65 and '73. He was actually much more consistent than most people realize, and he won at least one Tour event every year from '55 through '71.
ROOT AROUND the soul of any professional golfer, and you'll find something melancholic. Fans remember Palmer tossing victory balls and flinging visors like they were Frisbees. Those photos were lodged in Palmer's mind too, but he remembered just as well the ones that got away. He revisited these events without bitterness but with genuine regret. Hearing him talk about these tournaments made him all the more real. He had a way of creating intimacy. Friends, relatives and employees were intensely loyal to him.
Unlike almost every other great champion, Palmer found joy in the game even after age started eroding his skills. He liked being in public, he liked being with the boys and he liked the challenge of trying to improve. He liked golf on every stage. One day when he was in his 70s, Palmer was playing a par-3 course in the California desert. Early on he found himself one down to a duffer, but then he started to turn the match around. He shook his club and yelled joyfully, "I got you now!"
Palmer wrote more golf books (10) than Dan Jenkins, designed or remodeled more courses (about 300) than Pete Dye and sponsored more products than Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr. together. He drove a tractor for Pennzoil, ran through airports with O.J. Simpson for Hertz and appeared in an Electronic Arts video game with Tiger Woods. A hundred other deals could be added to that list. He appeared to be at once a conformist and a maverick, and people found that combination irresistible. He could be a Harvard Business School case study for the athlete as celebrity endorser and businessman. He paved the way for Jean-Claude Killy, Jackie Stewart, Michael Jordan, Phil Mickelson, Woods and many others.
Palmer was not close to Woods but was deeply impressed by his talent, and the two played together a handful of times. He occasionally watched Woods work on the driving range with his father, Earl, at Isleworth, a massive Orlando real estate development in which Palmer was an early investor. He once said that Tiger's relationship with Earl reminded him of his relationship with Deacon. Both fathers taught the importance of discipline and practice. Both instilled in their sons a competitive hunger bordering on voraciousness.
Palmer's longtime agent, Alastair Johnston, recruited Woods to IMG. Palmer himself had a long association with Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG and the man who invented the Big Three. Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, was a country-club kid and a plodder. Player, the Black Knight, was a globe-trotting overachiever with movie-star looks. Palmer was simply the King. In the 1960s, he gave the men's line at Sears a stamp of credibility, and he made cigarette smoking look cool. Later, he became a public face of an antismoking campaign. Palmer, a prostate cancer survivor in his late 60s, also made public service announcements about the importance of regular prostate exams.
Palmer played quickly, drove the ball long and straight and, with his inimitable knock-kneed, wristy stroke, could run the table with his putter. He was not one to sit around and hyperanalyze swing positions or the meaning of life. Asked about life regrets, Palmer once said, "I wish I would have tried putting left-hand low."
ARNOLD PALMER'S legacy is vast. He was part-owner of Bay Hill Club and Lodge, where a PGA Tour event bearing his name is played every March. He was an owner of the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Arnold Palmer was amused and a little embarrassed by the ubiquity of the beverage that bears his name, a lemonade--ice tea drink he is credited with inventing. There's a hospital named for him in Orlando and an airport named for him in Latrobe.
Palmer had six grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. He married for a second time, in 2005, to Kit Gawthrop. He and Kit lived across the street from Latrobe Country Club, where his father had eventually become the head professional and his mother kept the books. Arnold bought the club in 1971. His home in Latrobe was a modern, boxy, comfortable mountain design, not some showpiece, and his prized possession in it was a landscape painting given to him by its artist, Dwight Eisenhower.
Palmer's official residence was a condo at Bay Hill, but Latrobe was the center of his universe. At Bay Hill he converted the garage into a workshop, and in it he spent many happy hours, bending clubs and chewing the fat with friends including former Tour player Dow Finsterwald; Palmer's longtime right-hand man, Doc Giffin; and various pilots and course superintendents who were both employees and friends. There was a small refrigerator in the workshop, and at 5 p.m. sharp, the first beers came out. In Latrobe, a massive barn served as a depository for 60 years of Palmer memorabilia, overseen by his younger brother, Jerry, who previously served as the general manager at Latrobe Country Club. He is also survived by two sisters, Lois Jean Tilley and Sandy Sarni.
Arnold Daniel Palmer—Arnie to most everyone—was a man of his generation. He insisted that men remove their hats upon entering the various clubhouses under his watch and was a big believer in the benefits of the firm handshake. He often said that the secret to his success as a golfer was the firm grip his father taught him as a child, just a few years after the great crash. He never changed his grip, he never changed his swing, he never changed his personality.
The New York Times columnist Dave Anderson once wrote that nobody could enjoy being who he or she is more than Arnold Palmer enjoys being Arnold Palmer. That observation got to the heart of the man and the matter. Palmer lived a full life and got millions of others to believe they could do the same.
ESSENTIALLY HE LIVED A MODEST LIFE, EXCEPT FOR HIS PENCHANT FOR PRIVATE PLANES.
LIFE REGRETS? "I WISH I WOULD HAVE TRIED PUTTING LEFT-HAND LOW."
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