A charismatic figure who transformed golf from a “rich man’s game” and brought the sport to America’s middle class after turning professional in 1955, Palmer was immensely popular with television audiences and often drew galleries of up to 30,000 spectators. His fans became known collectively as “Arnie’s Army.”
With an astute acumen for more than golf, Palmer also became the sport’s first large-scale businessman, involved in such varied interests as golf-course design, including the building of some 200 layouts since the mid-1960s, clothing, auto dealerships and The Golf Channel.
Upon winning his seventh and final major championship, the 1964 Masters, Palmer was golf’s career money leader with $506,496 in earnings. Four years later, he became the sport’s first millionaire, and by the late 1990s, his annual endorsement income approached $15 million.
A charter member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and also a member of the American Golf and PGA halls of fame, Palmer underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997. He returned to competitive golf only two months later.
Palmer’s first pro tour victory came in the 1955 Canadian Open. He captured two more titles in 1956 and four in 1957 before his first major championship made him the youngest Masters winner ever, at age 28, in 1958.
It was at Augusta two years later when Palmer began establishing his reputation for an uncanny ability to come from behind. Needing birdies on the final two holes to overtake Ken Venturi, Palmer rolled in a 27-footer on 17 and then another birdie on 18 to claim a stunning victory.
In the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills County Club outside Denver two months later, Palmer overcame a seven-shot deficit on the final day to emerge victorious. Six birdies on the first seven holes led to a blazing 30 on the front nine, and Palmer finished with a six-under 65 to edge Jack Nicklaus by two strokes.
Palmer built on his final-day legend by shooting a 65 to win the Palm Springs Open, a 67 to win the Pensacola Open, another 67 to force a playoff, which he won, at the Hartford Open, and still another 67 to claim the Mobile Open.
The first to win four Masters, including in 1962, Palmer also captured two British Opens, in 1961 and ’62, at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon, respectively. The double abroad motivated many American golfers to resume playing in the British Open.
The PGA player of the year in 1960 and ’62 and the tour’s leading money-winner between 1960 and ’63, Palmer won 29 tournaments during that stretch and also captained the U.S. team to the 1963 Ryder Cup championship. He won the Vardon Trophy for the tour’s best scoring average in 1961, ’62, ’64 and ’67, the Hickok Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year award in 1960, and was Associated Press’ athlete of the decade for the 1960s, ahead of such luminaries as Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
Still, Palmer and Arnie’s Army endured their share of disappointments, including a double-bogey on 18 that enabled Gary Player to win the 1961 Masters. Palmer lost five strokes on the final three holes of the 1966 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, falling into a tie with Billy Casper, and then blew a two-stroke lead on the final eight holes of a playoff the next day, losing by four.
The lone major tournament to elude Palmer was the PGA Championship. He finished second three times, falling by one stroke to Julius Boros in 1968, the same tournament in which Palmer surpassed the million-dollar mark in career earnings.
Palmer, Nicklaus and Player formed golf’s “Big Three” during most of the 1960s, with the competition among them playing a great role in the dramatic increase in the sport’s popularity.
Though his putter began to fail him in the mid- and late-1960s, it might have been Palmer’s increasing involvement in business that had more to do with his inability to win another major championship after 1964.
With the advice of his manager, Mark McCormack, Palmer became golf’s pre-eminent pitchman and built a multi-million-dollar empire, spending a great deal of time and energy on private-airplane flights to tend to his business affairs and make public appearances. As late as 1985, according to Sport magazine, Palmer remained the world’s highest-paid athlete, including endorsements and commercial appearances.
Despite his lack of success on the course, Palmer’s popularity hardly waned. His golf career enjoyed something of a renaissance in 1980, when he won the PGA Senior Championship, the first Senior Tour event he ever entered. A year later, Palmer won the U.S. Senior Open, becoming the first former U.S. Open champion to do so. He again captured the PGA Senior Championship in 1984, along with the Senior Tournament Players Championship, a title he repeated the following year.
Born in Latrobe, Pa., a small industrial town at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains approximately 50 miles east of Pittsburgh, Palmer began playing golf at an early age. Palmer’s father, Milfred J. (Deacon) Palmer, was the golf pro and greens-keeper at Latrobe County Club, and cut down a regulation set of club’s for his son to use when he was a toddler.
Palmer won two Pennsylvania state interscholastic championships and the first of five West Penn Amateur championships by the age of 17. He received a golf scholarship to Wake Forest, where he was a three-time Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
A promising golf career nearly came to an end in 1950, when Palmer lost close friend and teammate Bud Worsham in a fatal car accident. Devastated, Palmer quit college during his senior year and joined the U.S. Coast Guard, serving three years.
Returning to the game while stationed in Cleveland, Palmer entered and won several amateur tournaments, including two Ohio Amateur titles and the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship, before turning pro.
Palmer, whose first wife of 45 years, Winifred, died in 1999, is survived by his second wife Kathleen, daughters Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Sanders, brother Jerry, sisters Lois Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarady, four granddaughters and one grandson
©2016 the Daily News (Los Angeles)
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