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Arnold Palmer, a Pennsylvania greenskeeper’s son who became one of golf’s most charismatic champions and made millions of dollars by turning his popular “everyman” image into one of the most lucrative sports brands in the world, died Sunday at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, according to his longtime assistant Doc Griffin. Palmer was hospitalized in preparation for heart surgery, but Griffin said he did not know the exact cause of death. He was 87.
Palmer rose from a blue-collar background to become part of the sport’s royalty - he was colloquially known on the PGA tour as “The King” - and frequent playing partner of U.S. presidents. He left an indelible mark on the world of golf in the form of nearly 300 signature-designed courses, and Arnold Palmer Enterprises, which handled his endorsements and other ventures, helped make Palmer the first golfer to make his name a worldwide franchise.
Many credit Palmer with inventing golf as a televised sport, becoming the game’s first well-known star by helping to put a name and face to the game. Palmer’s vitality and boyishly handsome looks helped attract many new fans to the sport who watched on television. “I’ve got sex written all over my face,” Palmer once said.
Emerging as a superstar athlete in the 1950s, Palmer did not play golf courses; he attacked them. Armed with a brutish swing that more resembled a hockey slap shot than a daisy cutter, Palmer brought energy and zest to the staid game that men before him such as Bobby Jones and Sam Snead played wearing tweed coats and knickers.
Standing 6-feet-2, with broad shoulders, beefy arms and massive hands, Palmer was known for bombing drives off the tee and then stalking his ball down the fairway, striding long bounds while dangling a thin cigarette between his fingers.
Frequently, though, Palmer’s heavy swing would lead him to find his ball beached in sand traps and buried in thick rough. When his options were either to play it safe by taking a stroke and punching out for a cleaner shot, or zinging it between trees and through bushes for the narrow chance to save for par, Palmer knew what to do.
“There always were conservative players, fairways-and-greens types,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The spectators get a kick out of seeing a player take a shot, take a risk.”
Surrounded by the gallery, almer would flick his cigarette, hitch up his pants, and then blast his ball for often mesmerizing results.
Between 1958 and 1964, he won seven major titles, including the Masters four times, the U.S. Open once, and the British Open twice, two years in a row. Throughout a career spanning five decades, Palmer won 62 tournaments on the U.S. tour, and accrued nearly $7 million in prize money. He was the first golfer earn $1 million in purses.
Perhaps Palmer’s most memorable tournament, and one of the greatest golf showdowns of all time, occurred at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver.
On the final day of the event, Palmer was seven shots behind the leader - an otherwise insurmountable lead.
“What’ll happen if I shoot 65?” Palmer asked a friend before he teed off for the final round.
“Nothing,” said Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Drum, “You blew your chance.”
“Like hell I did,” Palmer replied. “A 65 gives me 280 and 280 wins the Open.”
That day, Palmer drove the green on the 346-yard first hole. He birdied six of the seven opening holes. He shot a 65 - edging out an amateur prodigy by two shots named Jack Nicklaus - to win his only Open title.
Palmer was already an established champion on the tour when Nicklaus rose from obscurity to become golf’s golden boy. In nearly every tournament they entered, Palmer and Nicklaus battled in what is known as one of golf’s fiercest rivalries.
At the 1962 U.S. Open, Nicklaus won his first major championship by beating Palmer in a playoff. In 1964, Palmer finished first at the Masters, while Nicklaus was second. The next year, the order was reversed. In 1967, Nicklaus won the U.S. Open again, this time with a score of five under par. The only other player in the top 10 who played below par was Palmer, who finished second, four shots behind Nicklaus.
Their rivalry extended off the course to the business world. Palmer was known to call Nicklaus’ marketing symbol - a golden bear - a “golden pig,” reflecting Nicklaus’s pudgy physique.
In their later years, however, Palmer and Nicklaus became great friends. In 2010, Palmer and Nicklaus were the ceremonial starters of the Masters golf tournament and both hit an honorary first drive.
“In terms of fan recognition, he lifted the game to another level,” Nicklaus told USA Today in 2004. “He grabbed the imagination of the public. From 1958 to 1964 it would be hard to find a golfer who played better.”
Of Palmer’s mass appeal, golf writer Dan Jenkins once noted, “Arnold Palmer did not play golf, we thought. He nailed up beams, reupholstered sofas, repaired air conditioning units. He was the most immeasurable of all golf champions.”
His fans made themselves known one year at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, parading behind him and holding up signs that read “Arnie’s Army.” Many of them were soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon who had come to the tournament just to watch Palmer.
In all of his tournament appearances, Palmer was followed by throngs of fans who would stack themselves 15 rows deep. They’d climb trees, stand on shoulders, and even employ cardboard periscopes - anything to catch a glimpse of “The King.”
Palmer capitalized on his popularity to wide success as a businessman, notably in 1961 when he started Arnold Palmer Enterprises with the marketing symbol of a colored golf umbrella.
Much of his success behind the scenes was credited to his business partner, Mark McCormack, whom Palmer had played against in college. McCormack, who died in 2004, founded IMG, an athlete management business, in 1960 and signed Palmer as his first client. Their deal, which was sealed with a handshake, immediately proved fruitful. In the first two years, Palmer’s endorsements soared from $6,000 a year to more than $500,000.
Throughout his career, Palmer maintained contracts with a wide variety of companies, including Rayovac batteries, Rolex watches, Starkey hearing aids, Pennzoil engine fluids, Ketel One vodka, Cadillac luxury cars, Callaway golfing products and E-Z-Go golf carts.
Palmer is also credited with creating a blended drink, an iced tea splashed with lemonade.
“A guy came up to the bar and he ordered an Arnold Palmer, and the barman knew what that drink was,” said Irishman Padraig Harrington, a three-time majors champion. “That’s in a league of your own.”
Always the businessman, in 2002 Palmer had his company license “Arnold Palmer Tee,” a bottled version of the drink, to the AriZona Beverage Co.
Palmer was also one of the first professionals to design golf courses and make millions of dollars doing it. Nearly 300 golf courses around the globe bear his name, including two that Palmer owned: the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, home to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a PGA tour event, and the Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania, the course where his father maintained the greens.
In 1994, Forbes estimated Palmer’s personal fortune to be worth more than $175 million. In Asia alone, the Arnold Palmer brand sells more than $100 million in products that range from car air fresheners to bed linens.
Palmer owned an exclusive magazine that catered to clubs where he had designed a golf course. He named the signature publication, which is distributed worldwide, “Kingdom.”
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929, in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and raised in nearby Latrobe. He learned the game of golf from his father, Milfred Jerome “Deke” Palmer, a strict taskmaster who worked every day on the grounds of the Latrobe Country Club.
Palmer recalled in his book, “A Golfer’s Life” (1999), that he was 3 years old when his father placed a cut-down women’s golf club in his hands and instructed him simply to “hit it hard, boy.”
The rest Palmer did himself. He grew up to become a prodigious player and in high school lost only four matches.
During a junior tournament one summer, he met Marvin “Bud” Worsham, a golfer from the Washington area who would change Palmer’s life.
Worsham, who was also known as Bubby, was the youngest brother to the 1947 U.S. Open champion Lew Worsham. Bud Worsham became Palmer’s best friend, and the two became roommates at what is now Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where they both played golf on scholarship.
One night in Palmer’s senior year, Worsham was in a car that caromed off a road and slammed into a tree. Palmer, who was supposed to have been in the vehicle that night with Worsham, drove to the coroner the following morning to identify his best friend’s body.
The most prestigious junior tournament played in Washington, the Bubby Worsham Memorial, was renamed in his honor.
Shortly after the accident, MPalmer left school and served three years in the Coast Guard. In 1954, seven months out of Coast Guard service and long out of the elite level of golf, Palmer as entered the U.S. Amateur tournament, then one of the premier events for golf talent.
Palmer, who was a long shot to begin with, won the tournament by a shot over Robert Sweeny. He often said he considered the win one of his greatest victories and the turning point in his career. Days later Palmer became a professional golfer by signing a sponsorship deal with Wilson Sporting Goods.
In his later years, Palmer took on the role of golf’s godfather, dispensing advice to fellow players on anything from business, their swing, to their private lives. In 2010, Palmer was outspoken during the aftermath of the news that Tiger Woods had been an unfaithful husband, and said Woods could have handled the controversy better by being more open with the public.
Among his many charitable donations, Palmer endowed a scholarship at Wake Forest in honor of Bud Worsham. In 2006, the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies opened in Orlando, largely funded by Palmer, which he named in memory of his wife of 45 years, the former Winnie Walzer, who died in 1999.
Survivors include his second wife, the former Kathleen Gawthrop, whom he married in 2005.
In 2004, President George W. Bush awarded Palmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Over the years, Palmer played golf with a number of presidents, and was frequent a partner of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Palmer often told a story about the first Masters he played in as a professional in 1955.
He and his wife, Winnie, drove up Magnolia Lane, the storied entrance to the grand white clubhouse of Augusta National, in a coral pink Ford towing a cramped 19-foot trailer they would live out of for the week of the event.
He came in 10th that year and won the considerable sum of $695.83, “and we never pulled the trailer again.”