First golf superstar who won seven majors and would endorse almost anything for money, including nailclippers and hearing aids
On Arnold Palmer’s 37th birthday his wife Winnie and Dwight D Eisenhower’s wife Mamie, who were old friends, cooked up a plan for a surprise celebration. Hearing a knock at the door, Palmer opened it. There, holding a small overnight bag in his hand, was the president of the United States.
Palmer did not invent golf in America, but such was his effect on the game in that country that many people thought he did. Not surprisingly President Obama, himself a keen golfer, led the tributes when news broke of Palmer’s death.
He burst upon the scene in the mid-1950s as America was recovering from the Second World War and golf was slowly becoming more popular, thanks in part to its endorsement by President Eisenhower. By force of personality and through his phenomenally consistent run of success on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s and 1960s, Palmer widened it from being a sport played predominantly in country clubs to one that had a much broader appeal.
At this time golf was beginning to be shown on television and the sport needed a figurehead. The homespun, patriotic, competitive and charismatic Palmer fitted the bill. In so doing he became one of the most important figures in the game in the 20th century, one of the so-called “big three” alongside his great rivals, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
A swashbuckling, attacking player who never seemed to back off from even the trickiest shot, Palmer attracted enormous galleries wherever he played. He was hugely popular in America and among golf fans in Britain and became the game’s first truly global star.
Palmer won 92 professional tournaments, 62 of them on the PGA Tour, managing at least one PGA win every year from 1955 to 1971. He won seven major championships, including four Masters victories and two Open championships — at Royal Birkdale in 1961 and at Troon a year later. He made six unbeaten Ryder Cup appearances and compiled ten wins on the Senior PGA Tour, including five majors. In 1967 he became the first man to make more than $1 million in career earnings on the US Tour.
“Arnold was the epitome of a superstar even before that word was coined,” said Ray Floyd, a fellow professional. “He set the standard for how superstars in every sport ought to be, in the way he always signed autographs, in the way he always made time for everyone.”
Jack Nicklaus had no doubt about Palmer’s wider importance for the development of golf. “I don’t think there can ever be another Arnold Palmer,” he said. “He can hitch up his pants or yank on a glove and people will start oohing and aahing. When I hitch up mine, nobody notices. Arnold’s place in history will be as the man who took golf from a game for a few to a sport for the masses. He was the catalyst that made it happen.”
Palmer’s own explanation for this mass appeal was more succinct. “I’ve got sex written all over my face,” he once said.
Palmer with his wife, Winnie, at Troon in 1962 after winning his second OpenRex Features
His swing had none of the silky smoothness of the great Sam Snead, who was coming to the end of his career when Palmer was starting out. Palmer went at it as if his life depended on it, his massive forearms generating considerable speed through the ball, the finish of his swing marked by a twirl of the clubhead.
“I’ve never heard someone say, ‘I wish I had Arnold Palmer’s swing,’” remarked Johnny Miller, one of the top American golfers of the 1970s. “You’d be wise to leave the king’s technique to the king.”
Palmer more than made up for this with his audacious, almost devil-may-care, style of play. Floyd once said he never saw Palmer leave a putt short. Jimmy Gill, a caddie of Palmer’s, said that if he missed a shot he always had the confidence to know that he would make it up later in the round. “He had something about him. That walk of his, the way he attacked the ball,” said Gill.
Obituary: ‘Arnold fell out of bed with charisma’
It did not harm Palmer’s popularity that he had a cheery grin, a habit of winking at spectators before he hitched up his trousers to address the ball and that he showed remarkable patience in signing autographs for them. They never hid their feelings for him nor he for them. “I tried to look the whole gallery in the eye,” he once said.
Palmer’s fans named him “King” or “Arnie”, and their enthusiastic support of him, and sheer weight of numbers, inevitably made them “Arnie’s army”. Such was their devotion that when his ball looked as if it was heading for the rough his crowd of supporters would sometimes “accidentally” get in its way.
He led them through the agony of a missed putt, shared with them the nobility of a perfectly struck fairway iron, smiled with them in many lighter moments and demonstrated how to accept both triumph and defeat with dignity.
These qualities and his sense of duty made him an all-American sporting hero from the mid-1950s until his death. Richard Nixon is said to have asked his opinion about the Vietnam War, to which Palmer is alleged to have replied: “Whatever you do, don’t lay up.” In other words, don’t leave the job half done.
In 2004 Palmer became the first golfer to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Five years later he became the second golfer after Byron Nelson to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Everyone wanted to take advantage of Palmer’s friendliness and his marketability, an asset that was encouraged by Mark McCormack, his business manager, who sealed his relationship with Palmer with a handshake in 1960. “Five things that made Arnie a legend were his looks, his modest background, his swashbuckling style of play, his exciting finishes in the early televised events and his affability,” McCormack said.
A cool-headed introvert, such as the golfing legend Ben Hogan, might have kept the popularity that followed from these characteristics in check, but Palmer was an extrovert with an instinctive flair for self projection — one who found it impossible to refuse anyone. Would he speak on the telephone to Eisenhower, who wanted to wish him a happy birthday? Of course. A call from a man whose name he did not know asking him if he would accept the honour of being elected Admiral of the Kentucky Waterways? That too was courteously accepted.
Palmer, who often had his shirttails flapping and a cigarette dangling from his lips when he played, never took himself too seriously. He was an uncomplicated and straightforward man and this could be seen in the way he always wanted to know where his money came from and where his wealth lay. It was no good telling him he was worth millions if he could not see those millions every month in his bank balance. This spurred him on to take part in any business transaction from which he was going to benefit — and mostly he did benefit to the tune of millions of dollars. As recently as 2008 the American magazine Golf Digest estimated that he had earned $30 million off the course in that year alone.
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born in the Pittsburgh suburb of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in September 1929. He learnt his golf from his father, Milfred J “Deacon” Palmer, who had suffered from polio as a young boy and was the head professional and greenkeeper at the Latrobe Country Club. His mother was called Doris, and he had two sisters, Lois and Sandy, and a brother, Jerry.
The young Arnold started to hit balls as a toddler with a cut-down set of clubs and began to accompany his father as he maintained the course. From 11 he caddied at the club and worked at almost every job there as he grew older.
Palmer concentrated on golf at high school and was soon dominating the game in western Pennsylvania. He won the first of five West Penn Amateur championships when he was 17 and then went to Wake Forest College (now university) on a golf scholarship. He became the No 1 player on the golf team and one of the top collegiate players of his era.
Then the young Palmer’s career was abruptly interrupted by the death in a car accident of Bud Worsham, his friend and classmate and the younger brother of the 1947 US Open champion Lew Worsham. Shaken by the tragedy, Palmer withdrew from college in his senior year and decided to enlist in the US coast guard, where he spent the next three years.
His interest in golf reawakened while he was stationed at Cleveland. And it was there in 1954, while he was working as a paint salesman after his discharge from the service, that he won the US Amateur championship. It was a watershed moment as he recalled.
“It gave me the confidence that I was ready to turn professional and play the PGA Tour,” he said. This was what he and his father had planned for years, and Palmer was never more proud of anything his father said to him than his comments after he had won the US Amateur: “You did pretty good, boy.”
At a tournament in Pennsylvania a week later, Palmer met Winifred “Winnie” Walzer, a business student at Brown University, and they married in 1954. “I thought she was a rich socialite and that if I married her I’d just be able to play golf all the time,” Palmer wrote. “She thought I was a rich young executive that could give her the lifestyle she wanted. We were both wrong.”
Winnie, who died in 1999, was hugely popular in the golfing world in her own right, even if she avoided the limelight, concentrating on charity work in the areas of illiteracy and health care. They had two daughters. Amy runs the Bay Hill Club and the Latrobe Country Club and has a son, Sam, who is currently playing on the PGA Tour. Peggy runs a speciality shop at Durham, North Carolina. There are six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. In 2005 Palmer married Kathleen Gawthrop, who survives him. She has two daughters, one son and eight grandchildren.
Late in 1954 Palmer turned professional, signing an endorsement contract with Wilson Sporting Goods for $5,000 plus a $2,000 signing-on bonus. “Go and play the way you know how and you’ll be all right,” his father advised. By August the next year, the smart young pro from Latrobe had scored his first PGA win, when he took the Canadian Open by four strokes at the Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto.
Palmer was launched — and he proved the perfect ambassador for a sport that thrived during the postwar boom in the States. As the suburbs expanded with new and bigger homes and the newly affluent looked for ways to fill their leisure time, they were inspired by men such as Palmer and Nicklaus showing them how it could be done on TV. Palmer was good-looking — a “stone fox” — and always immaculately turned out, and he kept winning.
The ultimate achievement in modern professional golf is to win all four major championships in one year, which has never been achieved, though Tiger Woods came close in 2000 and 2001. Palmer won the Masters and the US Open in 1960 and had the third leg of what had become known as the grand slam of golf in his sights at The Open at St Andrews. He finished second in Scotland to the Australian, Kel Nagle, by one stroke. Two years later he won the Masters again and the Open but lost the US Open in a playoff with Nicklaus.
Palmer competed in the Masters for the last time in 2004. A year later, after missing the cut at the US Senior Open by 21 strokes, he said that he would not enter any more senior major championships. In 2006 he retired from tournament golf for good.
“I always have the urge to play,” he said. “But I play so badly now. I was asked the other day how I was hitting it and I told the guy I am hitting it so hard I can usually hear the ball land.”
Palmer had many diverse commercial interests, ranging from agricultural equipment to golf clubs, cigarettes and cars — and he advertised a bewildering array of products from lawnmowers to hearing aids and toenail clippers. His promotion of a mixture of iced tea and lemonade, his favourite drink, which traced its origins to one day when he asked his wife to make it for him at home, was particularly successful.
The Irish golfer Padraig Harrington told of how he was in a bar in Miami. “A guy came up and ordered an ‘Arnold Palmer’, and the barman knew what that drink was. Think about that. You don’t go up there and order a ‘Tiger Woods’. I thought maybe you could do it in a golf club, but this was in a random bar, and the barman probably didn’t know one end of a golf club from the other, but he knew what the drink was.”
That he had a lasting association with a drink that was non-alcoholic was not without irony, given that he was convivial to a fault. As the golfer and commentator Peter Alliss put it, he “enjoyed a drink or three”.
Palmer led a full life in other respects, having what Alliss described as an appreciation of “the shape of a well-turned ankle”. It was exactly these human frailties, as well as his disdain for the gym, which explained his huge popularity with the public. People could identify with him.
Palmer bought and flew his own aircraft in a successful move to overcome his fear of flying, often swooping low over a golf course to announce his arrival or departure. In 55 years at the controls he amassed nearly 20,000 hours in the cockpits of various aircraft. “Flying has been one of the great things in my life,” he said when he finally stopped. “It has taken me to the far corners of the world. I met thousands of people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. And I even got to play a little golf along the way.”
Palmer owned the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, the venue of an annual tournament on the PGA Tour. He helped found the Golf Channel on television in the US and negotiated the deal to build the first golf course in China, as a result of which Palmer Course Design was founded and later renamed the Arnold Palmer Design Company. It has designed more than 200 courses around the world.
Among his proudest associations was with the Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando, Florida. This combines two hospitals, one for children and a second, named after Palmer’s wife Winnie, for women and babies. Palmer lent his name to the project and helped with the fund-raising to establish facilities that opened in September 1989.
For some years Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, the three former rivals, took part in a ceremony on the first morning at the Masters, each hitting a ceremonial drive to mark the start of that year’s championship. Thus it was at 7.40am on April 9, 2015, that Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, announced on the first tee for what would be the last time: “Still the king, always the leader of his army, please welcome Mr Arnold Palmer.”
On Palmer’s 80th birthday an American golf magazine wrote of him: “He was the original poster boy for a pastime that he transformed into a sport to compete with the holy trinity of baseball, basketball and American football. And he made it sexy. He smoked and drank and joked with the galleries. He signed autographs and shook hands. He was golf’s Everyman. He oozed charm and charisma. Men wanted to be him and women wanted to be with him. The camera loved him. Arnie made golf cool just by being Arnie.”