If you want to know what Arnold Palmer meant to golf, ask Gary Player. The South African won more professional tournaments than Palmer, more majors and the modern Grand Slam, something the American never managed. But when Palmer was around, the crowds were never bigger or more raucous. Player sometimes trumped ‘The King’ on the scorecard, but never with the fans. “I’ll always remember, we were playing in Japan. Unfortunately, Arnold Palmer passed wind,” Player says, laughing. “He was standing next to me and the Japanese referee thought it was me. The referee says, ‘Bad. No good, Player, Player-san. You make good poop.’ I said, ‘Wasn’t me, it was Palmer!’
“He said, ‘No, Palmer-san King of Golf, he no make poop on course!’”
Arnold Palmer wasn’t just a golfer. He wasn’t just an icon at a time when golf needed a face for television. He wasn’t just one of sport’s original businessmen. The swashbuckler with the movie star looks was a pied piper—people followed him, on and off the course. Palmer was magnetic and golf—and sport, generally—will miss him dearly. He died Sunday due to heart complications. He was 87.
Years after Palmer won his last of seven major championships, after, eyes brimming with tears, he played his last professional round and stepped away from the game, the office in his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., was flooded with fan mail like he was still thrilling crowds with his gawky swing and miraculous putts. Staff at Latrobe Country Club could never leave the autograph requests more than four or five days, the club’s manager says, because the piles would get out of hand. Well into his 80’s The King maintained the kind of following that earned him the nickname in the first place.
Jack Nicklaus, Player, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw and scores of other golf legends have said it: Palmer is the most popular player ever. “I don’t think there’s any question, if you’d ask any player playing,” says Crenshaw, a fellow hall of famer. “Every golf professional since Arnold Palmer came out should absolutely thank him for what he’s done for the game and for all us that have followed him.”
Palmer’s own hall of fame career included 62 PGA Tour wins and 92 total professional victories. He won four Masters tournaments, was a two-time PGA player of the year, a six-time Ryder Cup team selection, a twice-winning Ryder Cup captain and the first golfer to hit $1 million in career earnings.
But you won’t find Palmer’s greatest gift to the game in the record books. “It’s the way he went about it and the way he was with people, the people’s favourite,” says Crenshaw, who grew up watching and idolizing The King. “There will never be another Arnold Palmer.”
As quotable as he was charismatic, Palmer once said, “I’m in love with golf, and I want everybody else to share in my love affair.” We sure did.
Some say it was the twinkle in his eye. Others called it charm, magnetism or credited Palmer’s go-for-broke style for the excitement surrounding the man from western Pennsylvania. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, emerging in an era when golf was better known as a quiet gentleman’s game, and he spurred an Army: Arnie’s Army.
There was nothing quite like being in the crowd at Augusta National with Palmer in contention, says his brother Jerry, who’s 15 years younger (even if Arnold always introduced him as the older one). Jerry never got over watching fans race up the fairways to cheer on his brother, a scene that looked more like a mob compared to the roped-in and restrained galleries of today. “I was a 13-, 14-year-old kid and my brother’s right there in the middle of it,” Jerry says. “People are running alongside him screaming, ‘Arnie! Arnie!’ It was absolutely wonderful. Can you imagine? Those were the times of our lives.”
No one did more for the growth of the game in the United States in that era than Palmer, if you ask Player. Among golf’s ‘Big Three’ of the 1960s and early ’70s, Jack Nicklaus won the most majors, but Palmer thrilled the most fans. “He was very charismatic and he did an awful lot for the game—I don’t know that you can even define it,” Player says. “He brought a lot of people into golf and got people very excited about it. He drew them in.”
Palmer’s best friend and right hand man of more than 45 years, Doc Giffin, had a front row seat through all of it. He first covered Palmer’s amateur career as a sportswriter in Pittsburgh and later worked with the PGA of America before signing on as Palmer’s assistant. “People who weren’t otherwise golf fans became fans,” says Giffin. “Even non-golfers were attracted to him because of his demeanor, his smile, his genial personality and that cliché charisma. It came across very publically to people watching.”
Well into his 80’s Palmer couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded for autographs. Giffin and Jerry say they never saw him turn down a request for a signature. Not once. Neither could understand the way Palmer naturally handled the crowds, even flourished in the celebrity. “I’d just stand by and watch,” Giffin says.
There were times he’d try to blend in with the crowd, but Arnold Palmer simply couldn’t. In recent years he’d try to sneak out to watch his grandson Sam Saunders tee it up on the PGA Tour, but Saunders could tell the moment grandpa arrived. The galleries swelled and the focus shifted to the white-haired man trying to catch a glimpse of the action. The distraction meant, more often than not, Palmer would follow his grandson on his computer or on television.
Arnie was the man who made TV take notice of golf in the first place: He was the sport’s first on-screen superstar. And what better player to usher the game into the television age than the strapping young man who went after his shots with abandon, winked at the crowd, shook hands with his fans and danced to the cup after draining a big putt. “The sport needed somebody like Arnie and Arnie was there, the timing was right,” Jerry says. “Arnold was the star of the show and he played his part extremely well.”
In 1960 when Palmer won the Masters, the U.S. Open and six other PGA tournaments, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were thrilling baseball fans, Rocky Marciano was the star in the ring, Bobby Hull was putting pucks in the net and Jim Brown was running down football records. But when TV came along those other sports were well established in the American psyche, whereas interest in professional tour golf was minor. “Arnold’s influence and the influence of President Eisenhower and a few others in golf spurred the interest in television rights,” Giffin says. “Although I think it’s proper to credit Arnold with doing more than anybody in that regard. Golf flourished.”
Palmer’s presence made television tune in because he was one of few guys out there giving people a reason to watch. “If you’re watching a bunch of guys that are just stoic—like Ben Hogan, a great player but he didn’t show any emotions—let’s face it, it’s like watching paint dry,” says Brad Brewer, the former director of Arnold Palmer Golf Academies and author of Mentored by the King. “Or you’ve got somebody that’s showing this amazing energy. That’s the way Arnold played, and that excites everybody, even if you’re not a golfer. People tuned in and the whole thing just took off like a rocket.”
Part of the Palmer appeal is that he wasn’t just a golfer. He was an everyman, a guy who smoked too much, whose rumpled shirt often came un-tucked on the golf course. He’d served for three years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was relatable.
And he was extraordinary at the same time. If he wasn’t a golfer, Palmer would have been a pilot, his other passion in life. He’d wow his fans with fly-bys after tournaments, arranging with local flight controllers so they knew he’d be making a slow pass, even dipping a wing of his plane into the water on his way out.
There seemingly wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. Palmer even owns an around-the-world speed record: in 1976 he piloted a Lear 36 around the globe in less than 58 hours. Along the way he touched down in Sri Lanka for an elephant ride and in the Philippines to meet then-president Ferdinand Marcos, who was a big golf fan. Nobody has flown that same route faster in that model of plane.
The King flew for the thrill, but he often said Palmer the Pilot furthered the success of Palmer the Businessman. It meant he could easily visit the sites of some of the more than 300 courses around the world his design company crafted. Arnold Palmer Enterprises—known by its colourful umbrella logo—is one of the most successful business empires built by any athlete.
Palmer’s business success alone would have made him a legend. His late agent Mark McCormack, co-founder of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, took on Palmer as his first client and that partnership sparked the beginning of what is now IMG, the world’s first-ever successful sports marketing empire. When Joe Gibbs asked Palmer what he thought of a 24-hour TV channel dedicated to golf, Palmer invested in and co-founded what is now The Golf Channel.
But no business deal meant more to The King than when he was able to buy his home club in Latrobe, to this day owned and operated by the Palmer family. It’s here his love affair with golf was born, but more importantly, it’s where his father, Deacon, the man he called ‘Pap’ and admired more than anyone, worked tirelessly for 40 years as the course superintendent, head professional and designer. That purchase was Palmer’s “most important,” Giffin says. “He never forgot where he came from, regardless of all the success he had.”
To define that success is not possible. It was too far-reaching, too all encompassing, too powerful. But one thing’s for sure: Arnold Palmer was the fan favourite, no matter where he went, no matter when.
It was cold and rainy in Lake Ozark, Mo. The bulldozer had started, laying the foundation of what was now just raw dirt, but would soon be home to an Arnold Palmer signature golf course. The state’s one and only.
Then in his 70s, The King decided to make a last-minute trip to see the site for himself, as he often did. By the time he arrived, a crowd larger than the city’s population of some 1,600 people had turned up, all on a moment’s notice. “It was like everyone within miles was there to see him,” says Brewer. “These people came out of the woods. It was incredible.”
Palmer’s celebrity was so big that even years after he won his final major, his last-minute visit to a small city in Missouri drew a crowd of thousands. That from the time he thrilled us on the course to the time he left us, he couldn’t appear in public without causing a stir. And that even on the other side of the world, they knew he was The King. Lee Trevino once said it best: “No one will ever be as popular as Arnold Palmer.”
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