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Palmer, the King of Golf, dies at age 87
Author: Randall Mell,
September 25th 2016 -

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Whatever cosmic substance was woven into Arnold Palmer’s DNA, we may never see the likes of it again.

While Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan won more PGA Tour events, Palmer won more intangible treasures.

Really, how do you measure all the hearts Palmer lured to the game?

If somebody up in the cosmos is keeping a record of that, Palmer’s mark may never be broken.

Alastair Johnston, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed to Golf Channel that Palmer died Sunday afternoon due to complications of heart problems. While Palmer might not be remembered as the single greatest player who ever lived, he died Sept. 25 at age 87 as the most beloved. 

That’s his real legacy. That’s what earned him his nickname “the King.” That’s why there is such deep grieving today.

Born Arnold Daniel Palmer on Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pa., he would go on to win 62 PGA Tour titles and amass a total of 95 professional wins. He won seven majors: four Masters, two British Opens and one U.S. Open. He won at least one PGA Tour event over 17 consecutive years (1955-1971). Nobody has won in more consecutive years, with only Nicklaus equaling the mark (1962-78). Palmer played on six American Ryder Cup teams (all winners), serving twice as captain, and he remains today the last playing captain (1963). Four times, he won the Vardon Trophy as the PGA Tour pro with the lowest scoring average.

Palmer’s amateur record was also formidable. He was the first player from Wake Forest to win the NCAA individual championship. He won it in 1949 and again in ’50, but he left college as a senior, deeply affected when his teammate and best friend, Bud Worsham, was killed in a car accident. “Wake without Bud was unthinkable,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life.” After three years in the Coast Guard, Palmer returned to Wake Forest, winning the U.S. Amateur in ’54 before turning pro.

The marks Palmer left on the game as a World Golf Hall of Famer go beyond his playing record.

Palmer helped build the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando. He founded Arnie’s Army Battles Prostate Cancer and contributed to countless charitable endeavors. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. His architectural company has built more than 300 golf courses around the world. He helped found Golf Channel, and he even has a drink named after him, a mix of iced tea and lemonade.

Into his 80s, Palmer’s appeal didn’t wane. He was on the cover of the video game “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14,” alongside Woods. He was photographed planting a kiss on the cheek of Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton during the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2013.

“I’ve always wanted to meet Arnold, he’s a legend,” Upton was quoted saying.

In 2012, Palmer, at 82, ranked third on Golf Digest’s annual list of highest paid golfers, ranking behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

What set Palmer apart?

“In a word, it’s charisma,” the late CBS television director Frank Chirkinian once said.

It wasn’t just Palmer’s triumphs that got him on a box of Wheaties and on the cover of Sports Illustrated 11 times. It was the dynamic way Palmer carried himself. It was the derring-do nature of his bold charges and how they came to define his career. It was also how he was able to make his legion of followers believe they were making the charge with him, that they were invited guests, welcomed along in his adventures.

“The manner in which Arnold won, the way he attacked and made birdies, it was very spectacular,” Dow Finsterwald, the ’58 PGA champion and a close friend to Palmer, once said.

Palmer was a superstar, but he became so with a grassroots appeal in the way he related to his fans. He was one of them, a blue-collar boy who used to work on a tractor with his superintendent/club pro father at Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania.

“The high-handicap player, he doesn't have much course management,” said Bob Toski, a Hall of Fame teacher who was PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 1954. “He always goes for broke. So did Arnie. The difference was that Arnie would knock it in the trees and make a 3. I think golf, with TV coming into the game, was really ready for a player who attacked like that. Arnie was a star, and he had a way of making people feel a part of it all.”

Palmer won the U.S. Open in 1960, coming from seven shots back in the final round at Cherry Hills. He won after boldly driving the first green, a par 4, and making a birdie. That same year, he birdied the final two holes to beat Ken Venturi at the Masters.

The derring-do also led to some spectacular collapses. Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper over the final nine holes in the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in 1966.

Palmer’s dynamic personality was a perfect fit with television discovering the sport.

Leaning on a golf club, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Palmer was James Dean in golf spikes back then. He had that rebel spirit over the ball, a go-for-broke style that made viewers lean into their TV sets.

Chirkinian was there directing CBS productions when Palmer took command of the new technological stage in sports.

“Arnold was great theater,” Chirkinian said more than once. “The camera, it loves you or hates you, there is no in between. The camera loves Arnold Palmer.”

Of course, Palmer’s career would become dramatically bound to the emergence of Nicklaus, who as a rookie infuriated Arnie’s Army, beating Palmer at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Nicklaus won in a playoff in what was virtually Palmer’s backyard, igniting a rivalry that would shape a complex relationship.

“We didn’t always see eye to eye on everything,” Nicklaus once said. “But one thing I’ll always be proud of: In important matters, when it came to the Tour and the game of golf, we always stood together.”

Five times, they finished 1-2 in major championships, with Nicklaus taking the ’62 U.S. Open, the ’65 Masters and the ’67 U.S. Open and Palmer the ’60 U.S. Open and ’64 Masters.

They loved beating each other.

“I always looked to see what he shot,” Palmer said.

Even outside the ropes, as business and golf course architectural rivals, they competed hard. Through it all, there was mutual respect that evolved into friendship.

“It was a great rivalry, and the rivalry didn’t take away from the friendship,” Palmer said late in 2013.

The nature of the relationship came through when Palmer’s first wife, Winnie, died in November of ’99. Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, left PGA Tour Q-School at Doral, where they were watching their son, Gary. They flew to Latrobe to attend Winnie’s funeral. There, Palmer invited Nicklaus to watch Gary win his PGA Tour card on television. They reportedly fell into each other’s arms in joy and sadness. 

Nicklaus appreciated what Palmer meant to the game.

“There's no question about his record and ability, but think of how much he brought to the game,” Nicklaus once said. “The hitch of his pants. The fans. He paralleled the growth of television golf. He was just the right man at just the right time.”

Palmer had the magical quality of making his fans believe he loved them as much as they loved him.

That’s no small feat in a world where celebrities can grow to despise the insatiable appetites of their followers.

“Hell, I know them all by name,” Palmer once joked. “They call me at home. There’s a lot of truth in that.”

After winning his first Masters in 1958, Palmer returned to Augusta National the following year to see a soldier from nearby Fort Gordon manning a scoreboard with a sign that read: “Arnie’s Army.” The Masters began capping ticket sales with the growing invasion of Palmer fans.

Palmer’s popularity would prove good for the domestic and international game.

Back in 1960, after winning the Masters and U.S. Open, Palmer decided to fly to The Old Course at St. Andrews and play The Open at a time when most Americans skipped the championship. Palmer’s agent, Mark McCormack, believed the trip was important in making Palmer a global star.

Over drinks on the flight over, Palmer and his friend, writer Bob Drum, got to talking about Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam sweep of the majors.

“Why don’t we create a new Grand Slam?” Palmer recounted in his book “A Golfer’s Life.”

Palmer didn’t win that British Open. He lost by a single shot to Kel Nagle, but he reinvigorated the championship anyway.

“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,” Player once said. “He has been a wonderful ambassador to the game. He behaved well. He was passionate with people.”

Palmer enjoyed mingling with his fans. He touched so many of them with a simple autograph, something he never seemed to tire doing. Nobody signed more.

How many lives did he touch with all his handwritten notes?

Palmer mailed out thousands of notes of congratulations and encouragement in his lifetime.

Kyle Hitchcock, a high school sophomore back in 2001, knows the Palmer touch. He was dejected making news in South Florida after turning himself in for signing an incorrect scorecard that cost his team a berth in the state championship. Hitchcock got one of Palmer’s personal notes.

“I admire you for the courage and honesty you showed,” Palmer wrote Hitchcock. “You had to make a difficult decision with obviously damaging consequences, yet you made the right choice and you were able to walk away from the event with your head held high.”

A year later, Hitchcock won the state championship.

Palmer’s notes have become treasures to the people who have received them over the years.

The values that governed Palmer came from his parents and Pennsylvania roots, he always said. His father, Milfred, was known as “Deacon.” His mother was Doris.

“My father prided himself on simple, clear logic, a way of looking at life that I eventually accepted as `Deacon’s Gospel.’ Not surprisingly, he had the same simple reverence for the rules of the game,” Palmer wrote in “A Golfer’s Life.”

Palmer, like his father, had large, strong hands. Deacon, the superintendent and club pro at Latrobe, famously taught Arnold how to hold a golf club, with the Vardon grip, when Arnold was a young boy.

“His initial thoughts on the golf swing weren’t complicated,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography. “`Hit it hard, boy,’ he said simply. `Go find it, and hit it hard again.’”

Palmer did learn to hit it hard. His blacksmith’s lash and corkscrew finish made his swing among the game’s most distinct.

After unleashing that dynamic swing to win the U.S. Amateur in ’54, Palmer’s life changed, on and off the course. Shortly after winning that event, he met Winifred Walzer during a party at a golf tournament in Pennsylvania. In a whirlwind romance, he proposed to “Winnie” the same week he met her. Two months later, they eloped. McCormack described Winnie as a devoted wife, secretary and business partner to Palmer. During Palmer’s rookie year, the couple traveled together with a trailer behind their coral pink Ford.

Palmer bought Latrobe, the club his father worked at, in 1971. Five years later, he purchased Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, home to the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Palmer’s life wasn’t without heartache. He survived a prostate cancer diagnosis in 1996. He lost Winnie to abdominal cancer three years later. They have two daughters, Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Saunders, and six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

In 2005, Palmer married Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in a private ceremony in Hawaii. “I feel like a 25-year-old again,” Palmer said after the marriage. “She’s a great lady. She’s just very special.”

Asked once about why he connected so well with people, Palmer said: “You just treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s about as simple as I can put it.”

The attitude helped him win so many more hearts than he did trophies.