Arnold Palmer passes away at age 87
September 25, 2016
By Larry Dorman, Special to PGATOUR.COM
- Arnold Palmer won 62 times on the PGA TOUR, including seven major championships. (Brian Lanker/Sports Illustrated)
Arnold Palmer, whose magnetic personality and bold style of play combined to make him one of golf’s greatest players, the sport’s most revered figure and the most influential athlete of his generation, died Sept. 25 of complications due to a heart condition with his two daughters and wife Kit at his side. He was 87.
“We have lost a great friend and giant in our sport tonight with the passing of Arnold Palmer," PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem said. "There is no way to adequately express the immense sense of loss that we all feel with this news. He obviously meant so much not only to the PGA TOUR, but to the entirety of golf by lifting it to newfound visibility and popularity. It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern day PGA TOUR without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA TOUR Champions without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer. No one has had a greater impact on those who play our great sport or who are touched by it. It has been said many times over in so many ways, but beyond his immense talent, Arnold transcended our sport with an extraordinarily appealing personality and genuineness that connected with millions, truly making him a champion of the people. The fact that his popularity never waned more than a quarter century after his last competitive victory speaks volumes to the man, the icon and the legendary figure he was.
"More than his words, Arnold’s actions spoke to his unequivocal love of golf and belief that no individual can be or should be bigger than the game. Arnold totally gave of himself to support golf and its growth. He has served as a role model for generations of PGA TOUR members in ways large and small. The game, and all of us involved with it are so much richer for having had the fortune to have Arnold willingly serve as its global champion and ambassador.
"Beyond being an invaluable friend of the TOUR who generously gave of his time, opinion and support, Arnold was a wonderful personal friend and was someone who was always there for me with advice, support and guidance. We will all miss him so.”
The winner of 62 career PGA TOUR titles, including seven major championships, Mr. Palmer rose from his modest Western Pennsylvania roots to become a towering figure with appeal that transformed and transcended the sport of golf.
Before the word “superstar” had entered the sports lexicon back in the 60s, Mr. Palmer was one. He flew his own airplane, drew galleries larger than those of the great Bobby Jones before and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods after, and served as a model for all golfers. Hall of Fame golfer Raymond Floyd summed it up in a 2009 interview with Golf Digest that marked Mr. Palmer’s 80th birthday.
“Arnold was the epitome of a superstar,” Mr. Floyd said. “He set the standard for how superstars in every sport ought to be, in the way he has always signed autographs, in the way he has always made time for everyone.”
And in the way he genuinely connected with throngs who came out to watch him play. “On the golf course, all I ever saw was a mass of people,” Mr. Floyd said. “I saw, but I didn't see. He was able to focus in on everyone in the gallery individually. It wasn't fake.”
Mr. Palmer’s love affair with his public, and marriage to the love of his life, both began in 1954, when Mr. Palmer turned professional and met and married the late Winifred Walzer, his wife of 45 years and mother of his two daughters, Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Saunders. Winnie Palmer died of cancer in November 1999. Mr. Palmer and his second wife, Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop, were married in a private ceremony in Hawaii in January of 2005.
Mr. Palmer’s first PGA TOUR victory came at the Canadian Open in 1955. Just as he began to collect dramatic victories, America’s fascination with television was exploding. TV sets, which numbered only 3.8 million in 1950, were in almost 46 million U.S. homes by 1960. Arnold Palmer’s go-for-broke style made him the ideal leading man for the new medium. He leapt off the small screen with a winning smile, affable manner and bare-knuckled athleticism. He produced drama. A very large audience, including his competitors, noticed.
“When he hits the ball, the earth shakes,” said Gene Littler, the Hall of Famer known for his rhythmic swing.
The temblors reached everywhere, and Arnold Palmer became a hit with Hollywood’s biggest stars and show business icons, like John Wayne, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. He was friendly with the 10 U.S. Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, and played golf with six of them – Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He was the only golfer to receive both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.When he hits the ball, the earth shakes.
Later in his life, Mr. Palmer joked about having played with so many chief executives, asking a Golf Digest interviewer, “You know somebody who’s played with more?”
The answer was no, of course. Yet, for all his lifelong associations with friends in high places, Mr. Palmer never lost his strong connection to the everyday people who became his loyal fan base. Laborers, truck drivers, waitresses, masses of blue-collar workers and just plain folks that came to be known as “Arnie’s Army” on the course also made for huge ratings in the TV business.
Mr. Palmer reigned over golf as the game's No. 1 player and influencer in the 1960s and ‘70s. Until recently, he regularly oversaw the operations of his far-flung business empire and many charitable interests, hosting the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida.
In the more than 40 years since his last PGA TOUR victory at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, Mr. Palmer actively oversaw his companies – which included the Arnold Palmer Design Company, Arnold Palmer Enterprises, Arnold Palmer Motors and Arnold Palmer Golf Tournament Services. Even as his playing skills waned, Mr. Palmer remained relevant and visible in golf, transitioning to the Ryder Cup captaincy in 1975, Presidents Cup captaincy in 1996, elder statesman and global business icon.
Mr. Palmer funded numerous charity ventures during his lifetime and founded the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, both of which have been listed among the nation’s top hospitals.
Essential Arnold Palmer
Born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the month before the start of the Great Depression, Mr. Palmer was the oldest of the four children of Milford (Deacon) Palmer and his wife Doris. He and his younger brother, Jerry, and two sisters, Lois Jean and Sandra, grew up in a cozy two-story frame house by the sixth tee at the Latrobe Country Club, where their father worked as the superintendent and head professional for 45 years.
Deacon Palmer, a tough-love disciplinarian with huge, calloused hands, was known as “Deac” around Latrobe. Mr. Palmer always called him “Pap,” and though the two had the usual number of father-son disagreements in the early years, he always gave his father – who was the only instructor he ever had – much of the credit for his success.
In his 2010 autobiography “A Golfer’s Life”, Mr. Palmer said he was 3 when his father first imparted the fundamentals of the sport.
“My father put my hands in his and placed them around the shaft of a cut-down women’s golf club,” Mr. Palmer wrote before describing in detail the overlapping Vardon grip and adding, “It’s not the easiest grip for a small-fry to master. But an easier, baseball, grip would never have done (and) it probably helped that my hands were larger than the average kid’s.”
As difficult as the grip was to master, the swing thought that came with it was simple, Mr. Palmer said: “Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it hard again.”
Mr. Palmer never did it any other way. With hands that grew larger and stronger than his father’s, he attacked golf and life, never backed down, smashed the risky shot and usually hit the green. He eventually bought the Latrobe Country Club where he grew up, and built his home and some guest cottages there. The airport is named after him, the kid who used to stand on the sixth tee when he was 6 years old and ask the ladies who couldn’t carry the ditch if they’d like him to hit their drive for a nickel.
By the time he turned 17, Mr. Palmer had twice won the Pennsylvania high school championship as well as the first of five Western Penn Amateur Championships. An average student at Latrobe High School who had given little thought to college, Mr. Palmer landed a golf scholarship to Wake Forest University in 1947 with help from Buddy Worsham, an acquaintance from the Pennsylvania amateur circuit.Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it hard again.
Buddy, an excellent player, was the younger brother of Lew Worsham, the head pro at Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh who won the 1947 U.S. Open. Buddy became Mr. Palmer’s best friend and running mate at Wake Forest and the pair led a previously lackluster Demon Deacon squad to three Southern Conference championships.
In 1950, Mr. Palmer had his first encounter with tragedy when Buddy Worsham was killed in a car crash during an excursion to Durham, N.C. Arnold had been invited to go along, but declined, having already agreed to go to the movies with another friend. The police took him to the hospital to identify his friend’s body.
Devastated by the loss, Mr. Palmer withdrew from Wake Forest, where he would later establish the Arnold Palmer Golf Scholarship that has produced numerous PGA TOUR stars. He signed up for a three-year tour of duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. After his discharge, he returned briefly to Wake Forest, then went to work at a paint store in Cleveland. Quickly realizing he was not cut out for a career in sales, Mr. Palmer began to work on his game in preparation for the 1954 U.S. Amateur.
In the final week before his 25th birthday, Arnold Palmer concluded a storybook march at the Country Club of Detroit to a victory in the 54th U.S. Amateur title that foreshadowed his impact on the pro game. He slugged his way into the finals to set up the deciding match against a 43-year-old career amateur named Robert Sweeny, a rail-thin man who stood 6-foot-3 and embodied the archetypal habitué of the stuffy world of country club golf.
According to Sports Illustrated, Mr. Sweeny was a “graying millionaire playboy who is a celebrity on two continents” and Mr. Palmer was a “tanned muscular salesman from Cleveland who literally grew up on a golf course.” It was the scion of an investment banker, the Oxford educated winner of the 1937 British Amateur, the organizer of the Eagle Squadron of the R.A.F. in WWII who kept addresses in London, New York and Palm Beach against the son of the professional at the Latrobe Country Club in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, an industrial town 40 miles from Pittsburgh, who had attended Wake Forest and was seven months out of the Coast Guard.
The legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind called it a “battle of the classes,” which it most certainly was. And Mr. Palmer planted the seeds for the birth of Arnie’s Army by winning the battle, rallying from 3 down after five holes to win, 1 up. Two months after striking that blow for the common man, making the Amateur his 29th amateur title, he turned pro. A year later he won his first event, the 1955 Canadian Open, winning by four strokes over a strong field that included Sam Snead and eventual 1956 Masters and PGA Championship winner Jack Burke Jr.
There he gave Canadian fans a glimpse of the future, eschewing caution and going for broke. He had a big lead when he hooked his drive into the woods at the sixth hole, but rather than try to protect the lead by chipping out, he ripped a 6-iron through a small gap in the trees onto the green. He later said that caution might be appropriate for some things, but not for golf.
“That was my way,” he said. “My father taught me to go get it. If you’re shooting between two trees with a 10-foot opening, and you try to calculate the percentages, you’d be there forever.”
Tarrying was not Mr. Palmer’s way, either. Though he turned pro rather late due to his tour of duty with the Coast Guard, he quickly made up ground, winning 12 TOUR events before he turned 30, including the 1958 Masters, and added five more in the run-up to the 1960 Masters.
He arrived at Augusta National in 1960 as the favorite in what would be a seminal year for golf – when the ever-expanding power of television intersected with drawing power of Arnold Palmer. It was the year after he and agent Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group, had sealed an exclusive management contract with a golden handshake that would make both men very wealthy and ultimately change the economics of the sport.
And it was the first year that the 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus, who would ultimately succeed Mr. Palmer as the game’s dominant player, first appeared on the radar at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus shared a rivalry and friendship that spanned decades. (Augusta National via Getty Images)
Mr. Palmer lived up to the favorite’s role, shocking Ken Venturi and thrilling a huge TV audience by birdieing the final two holes at Augusta National to win by a stroke. Bobby Jones called it one of the most dramatic victories he had ever seen, and it generated plenty of buzz. But it was almost ordinary compared to what happened in June at the U.S. Open.
It was there that Mr. Palmer mounted the greatest charge in U.S. Open history, coming from seven strokes behind the 54-hole leader, Mike Souchak, and passing the 14 golfers ahead of him, to set two U.S. Open records that might never be equaled.
Also unlikely to be duplicated is the way Mr. Palmer captured the national imagination by calling his shot, in Babe Ruthian fashion. As he was leaving the locker room after a lunch break to play the final 18 holes, Mr. Palmer asked his friend and hometown golf writer, Bob Drum, what would happen if he shot a 65.
“Nothing,” Drum replied. “You’re too far back.”
The rest is history. Irritated by his friend’s dismissal, Mr. Palmer went out and drove the green at the downhill par-4 first, shot 30 on the front nine, jumped over everyone and won the U.S. Open with a 65.
Arnie’s Army turned into a grass-roots revolution after that. Almost everywhere he went, Mr. Palmer was greeted by his mobilized wall of noise, and he embarked on a run that ratcheted up the noise to a level that echoes still. From 1960-63, he won 29 events, finished second 10 times and had 66 top 10s on the PGA TOUR.
No one labeled the phenomenon “Arniemania,” probably because the word evoked some exotic physical affliction, but the author and legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins did write that Mr. Palmer had become “something of a worldwide sporting Beatle.”
Mr. Palmer, Mr. Nicklaus and Gary Player, the modern triumverate that comprised the Big Three in golf during the real Beatlemania of the 60s and hit the ceremonial opening tee shot at the Masters for many years, came to appreciate one another later in life with an understanding forged in the cauldron of competition.
Mr. Player, who with Dow Finsterwald lost a Masters playoff to Mr. Palmer in 1962, suggested in Golf Digest a few years ago that Mr. Palmer might have won more majors if he had been a little more conservative, but then he wouldn’t have been Arnie.
“Jack won majors for 25 years; I won them for 20; Arnold won them for six” Mr. Player said. “But because he was so charismatic, because he did so much for golf, because the people loved him so dearly, they thought he was still winning. And, you know what? He was.”
Mr. Palmer has always said he wouldn’t change a thing about his style of play. He said in “Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey” by Thomas Hauser, that he derived enjoyment from pleasing the huge crowds, giving them what they came for and trying to connect with them any way he could.
“This might sound corny,” he is quoted, “but I tried to look the whole gallery in the eye. Maybe it was a selfish thing on my part, but I liked seeing the happiness my golf seemed to give them.”
He realized there were times, such as the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, when his Army’s enthusiasm crossed the line by directly abusing Nicklaus during during the playoff. Hecklers held signs over bunkers exhorting him to “Hit it Here, Fat Boy,” and the crowd stomped in unison while he putted.
A photo from Oakmont shows Mr. Palmer holding up his arm in an effort to quiet them. Afterward, he apologized to Mr. Nicklaus for the behavior, telling him, “They don’t understand.”
Mr. Nicklaus told him he understood. Three decades later he told Hauser how the treatment had affected him.
“Arnold played a role in my growing up,” he told the author. “It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was very tough for me to compete against Arnold and his gallery.
“But, in retrospect, it was a learning experience, probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I became a better person and a better player as a result, although I wasn’t always aware of that I was going through it.”
There were many more head-to-head duels between the two great players after 1962. For a man 10 years older than his main rival, Mr. Palmer won his share, including the 1962 British Open title, his second, one month later, the 1963 Western Open in a playoff over Mr. Nicklaus and Julius Boros, his third and final Masters title in 1964, the 1967 Thunderbird Classic in a four-way playoff over Mr. Nicklaus, Charles Coody and Art Wall.
And there was the highly emotional win in February of 1973, when the 42-year-old Mr. Palmer edged the 32-year-old Mr. Nicklaus and a 25-year-old Johnny Miller at the Bob Hope Desert Classic for his 62nd and final PGA TOUR victory. It was raining that day in the desert, and Mr. Nicklaus buzzed the final hole with an eagle putt that would have forced Mr. Palmer to make his 4-footer just to get into a playoff.
“What are you trying to do?” Arnie shouted to Jack over the din of the crowd.
“Beat you,” Jack said.
“Arnold and I wanted to beat each others brains in,” Mr. Nicklaus said not long ago. “But I consider him one of my closest friends in the game. There’s no question about his record and his ability, but I also think about how much he brought to the game. 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.”
Survivors include brother Jerry Palmer, sisters Lois Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarni; daughters Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Saunders, four granddaughters, Emily Schneider, Katherine Anne Spears, Anne James and Anna Flexer Wears; two grandsons, Samuel Palmer Saunders and wife, Kelly, and William Gray Palmer Wears; six great grandchildren, Charlotte Winifred, Grace Katherine and Hannah James Spears; Samuel James, Mackay Owen and Tucker Ray Schneider. Kelly Saunders son, Cohen, by a previous marriage; Mr. Palmer’s second wife’s three children are: son Al Gawthrop III, daughters Lynn Bouck and Blair Miller. Arnold's brother, Jerry, who succeeded their father as course superintendent at Latrobe CC, was general manager for many years and now is a member of his personal office staff, and sisters, Lois Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarni.
Details for the memorial service celebrating the life and legacy of Arnold Palmer can be found here.
In Memoriam: Arnold Palmer