One of golf’s all-time greats, Palmer’s success didn’t stop on course
Arnold Palmer wasted little time establishing his winning ways, capturing the Canadian Open during his rookie PGA Tour year in 1955 with a 23-under-par finish, a tournament mark that still stands.
It was the first of many historic moments for Palmer, the golf legend from Latrobe who died Sunday at UPMC Shadyside at age 87.
Palmer's death was confirmed by UPMC spokesman Paul Wood. Palmer had been in declining health in recent years.
Despite his early success, Palmer's place in golf lore took hold three years later in 1958.
While Palmer was playing in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Army soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon — now Fort Gordon — were offered free admission and recruited to run the scoreboards. Palmer, then 28, played his way into a tie for first with Sam Snead after three rounds.
The troops quickly took to Palmer, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Arnie's Army was born. Palmer went on to win the first of his four Masters.
In all, Palmer won 92 professional tournaments. His four Masters titles are tied for second most. His seven majors rank tied for seventh all-time.
Palmer's career was defined by scintillating victories and disheartening defeats. His life, though, was measured by a giving heart and an impregnable spirit that allowed him to triumph over personal setbacks, including a battle with prostate cancer in 1997.
Arguably no one had as much influence on golf as Palmer, whose rise to prominence coincided with the dawn of television.
During the 1960s, Palmer, chief rival Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player created a buzz about a sport that after years of being perceived fit only for the aristocratic set evolved into one that attracted blacks and whites, rich and poor, men and women.
“There's always been named players, but Arnold had significant impact on the game with the advent of television and his relationship with President (Dwight) Eisenhower,” longtime tour player Tom Kite said. “It added to a lot of popularity.”
“Arnold's presence (drove) … the sport,” said Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion. “It wouldn't be the same without Arnold Palmer. He put golf on the map.”
Palmer's name is synonymous with the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.
Trailing Mike Souchak by seven strokes, Palmer fashioned a final-round, 6-under 65 to capture the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo.
Palmer rolled in the longest 2-footer of his career on the 72nd hole to secure the win. Then he high-stepped across the green like a drum major to ignite a celebration among Arnie's Army.
Nicklaus, then only a 20-year-old amateur, finished second, two strokes back. It was the first of many duels with the Golden Bear.
Palmer never won another U.S. Open, finishing second four times.
Two of those runner-up finishes came in playoffs to Nicklaus and Julius Boros in 1962 and '63. But another U.S. Open playoff loss, this time in 1966, might have been the most heartbreaking.
In a role reversal from six years earlier, it was Palmer who squandered a seemingly insurmountable lead, building a three-shot lead at the start of the final round to seven with nine holes remaining only to shoot 39 coming in and finish tied with Billy Casper at 2-under 278. Casper then defeated Palmer in the playoff by four strokes.
Still, Palmer later said his most painful setback came to Boros at Pecan Valley Country Club in San Antonio during the final round of the 1968 PGA Championship.
Trailing by one entering the 72nd hole, Palmer needed a birdie and for Boros, the leader, to fail to get up and down. But Boros stuck a chip shot within 2 feet and made par, and Palmer missed a 12-foot birdie putt.
Palmer never won a PGA Championship, the lone major that prevented him from securing the career grand slam.
Palmer walked away from golf while at Wake Forest despite being one of the best collegiate golfers in the country. Close friend Buddy Worsham was killed in an automobile accident. Grief stricken, Palmer left school and joined the Coast Guard, where he served for three years.
He returned to Wake Forest in 1954, earning his business degree and leading the Demon Deacons to their first ACC title.
Palmer didn't walk away from competitive golf again until he was 77, when he withdrew from the Administaff Small Business Classic, a Champions Tour event, on Oct. 13, 2006, in Houston.
“It's time,” he said.
Palmer's last U.S. Open fittingly came in 1994 at Oakmont Country Club, with the indelible image of Palmer fighting back tears as he waved to the throngs of fans on his last hole.
Still, during the latter stages of his life, Palmer maintained a hectic pace. He ran a lucrative business and pursued sponsors in an effort to turn the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla., into one of the premier events on the PGA Tour.
Predictably, he succeeded. The tournament attracts nearly all of the top-50 players in the world.
“I love Arnie,” future Hall of Fame golfer Phil Mickelson said. “I think every golfer in the world appreciates what he's done for our sport.”
Palmer had a hand in the construction and design of more than 500 golf courses from Buenos Aires to Russia to China.
In the early 1980s, Palmer wasn't thrilled about finding an avenue for older golfers to continue their careers.
Yet two realities existed: Older players simply didn't have the distance to keep up with younger players, and corporate America bought into the idea of sponsoring what today is the Champions Tour.
“The truth is, despite an outward appearance of contentment with my life, I was pretty unhappy with the state of my game at the age of 50,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography. “So, in effect, the (Champions) tour came along at a perfect moment for me.”
The Champions Tour also has thrived as former PGA greats, including Nicklaus, Player, Bernhard Langer and Lee Trevino, shared Palmer's vision of playing competitive golf well into their golden years.
“We needed the older superstars to get this thing going,” Champions Tour veteran Loren Roberts said. “Obviously, Arnold laid the groundwork. Arnold allowed me to have a great career by keeping the Champions Tour going.”
“Arnold felt there should be a place for legends to play,” Champions Tour player John Cook said. “It developed into a viable tour and product, and it attracts a lot of sponsors.
“I can't imagine where the PGA Tour would have gone without Arnold. There would be a tour, but with a charismatic personality like Arnold, the sport was taken to another level.”
In early 1990, cable entrepreneur Joe E. Gibbs began his quest to launch a 24-hour golf network. Coincidentally, that was the year Gibbs had Palmer as a guest in his Birmingham, Ala., home for the PGA Championship. It was the start of a friendship and partnership that set in motion the birth of Golf Channel in 1995.
“Getting to know Arnold was when I realized how great this game of golf really is,” Gibbs said. “Walking with Arnold on the golf course, I saw how much the people loved him and loved being around him. That impressed and overwhelmed me.”
In less than a decade, the Golf Channel had nearly 30 million subscribers.
“I enthusiastically signed on as chairman of the new enterprise and promised to lend my name and use my influence wherever it was proper with folks inside and outside the golf world,” Palmer wrote in an autobiography, “A Golfer's Life.”
The channel's growth has been remarkable. It has exclusive coverage of the first two rounds of many PGA, Web.com and LPGA events.
“I must admit, convincing people to share our vision (Golf Channel) wasn't the easiest selling job,” said Palmer, who added many naysayers predicted failure for his venture into cable television.
Palmer also spent nearly a decade trying to convince the International Olympic Committee to embrace golf. Finally, the IOC agreed to make golf part of the 2016 Summer Games.
“I never like to say any one man is bigger than the sport, but Arnold Palmer is a man for whom our sport owes a great debt,” said Player, a Hall of Famer. “He's been a wonderful ambassador to the game.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected].