Arnold Palmer, Golf's First Superstar in the Age of Television, Dies at 87

Don Morley/Getty Images
Arnold Palmer lined up a putt during the 1973 Ryder Cup.

Swashbuckling on the course and modest off it, he won seven majors, played The Masters for 50 straight years, co-founded the Golf Channel and was IMG's first client.

Arnold Palmer, the gentleman golfer from Latrobe, Pa., whose thrilling, go-for-broke style made him the first television superstar of his sport and earned him generations of devoted fans, died Sunday. He was 87. 

The beloved Palmer, who was the first client of Mark McCormack's legendary sports management firm IMG and later co-founded the Golf Channel — the first cable network devoted to one sport — died at UPMC hospital in Pittsburgh. He was "awaiting cardiac surgery when his condition degraded," a spokesman for his company said.

Palmer appeared noticeably frail in March when he served as host of his annual PGA tournament held at his Bay Hill Club & Lodge outside Orlando. A few days earlier, he had said that he would no longer hit one of the ceremonial first tee shots at The Masters, which he had done every year since 2007.

The charismatic Palmer captured seven major tournaments during his illustrious career, taking The Masters four times (in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964), the British Open twice (in 1961 and 1962) and the U.S. Open once (in 1960, when he rallied from seven strokes down in the final round to storm past an aging Ben Hogan and a young Jack Nicklaus).

He never won golf's final major, the PGA Championship, finishing second three times, and had spectacular flame-outs, like when he blew a seven-shot lead in the final nine holes at the 1966 U.S. Open before falling in a playoff the following day. It was one of his four runner-up finishes at the Open.

Palmer, though, did win 62 times on the PGA Tour — including 29 times in his heyday of 1960-63, an era when color was coming to televisions across America. Audiences loved watching the swashbuckling Palmer, whose style was to swing as hard as he could on every full shot.

"He was the perfect figure for television because of his athleticism, his good looks, the way he played the game," his biographer, Jim Dodson (A Golfer's Life), said. "He created the excitement that TV symbolized. It was immediate, it was fresh. It could take people right to the scene in ways media had never done."

His fervent fans became known as Arnie's Army, and he made it a point to sign each and every autograph for them with perfect penmanship. “What’s the point of signing something if the person can’t read it or later can’t even remember who it was?” he often said.

In a game that is often elitist, he was never so.

In 1960, Palmer shook hands with McCormack to become the first client of International Management Group. The two had known each other from college, when Palmer competed for Wake Forest and McCormack played for William & Mary.

In Palmer's first few years with McCormack, his annual endorsement earnings grew from $6,000 to $500,000, and the golfer became a global "brand," one of the first in the annals of sports. He endorsed motor oil (Pennzoil), rental cars (Hertz), automobiles (Cadillac), airlines (Quantas, United), sunglasses (Ray-Ban), tractors, cardigans, after-dinner jackets, aftershave lotions — and much, much more.

Plus, he had his own drink, the Arnold Palmer, a half-and-half combination of iced tea and lemonade that he mixed in his kitchen for years. His company has been selling its own brand since 2001, and a commercial showing him dispensing one in an ESPN cafeteria was a very popular SportsCenter spot.

The Arnold Palmer "goes well with everything from a cheeseburger to a liverwurst sandwich to a cup of soup," he once said.

William Morris Endeavor closed on its purchase of IMG in May 2014. Said Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, co-CEOs of WME-IMG, in a statement: "Arnold Palmer set the standard for athletes in life and in business with his passion, charisma and dedication. We will forever remember him as IMG’s first client and a man who profoundly shaped the modern-day sports industry."

In yet another savvy business move, Palmer and Alabama entrepreneur Joseph E. Gibbs secured $80 million in financing to launch the 24-hour-a-day Golf Channel. It went on the air on Jan. 17, 1995, and five years later, Comcast acquired control of the network after Palmer cashed out.

He also had a thriving golf course-designing business and piloted his own plane.

Arnold Daniel Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, a modest suburb in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father was a steelworker who became a greenskeeper and then the club professional at the Latrobe Country Club, and Palmer began playing golf at age 4 and driving the club's tractor at 7.

He attended Latrobe High School and Wake Forest — his college career was interrupted by a three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard — and then won the U.S. Amateur tournament in 1954.

The chain-smoking, up-and-down Palmer was fun to watch even then, as Sports Illustrated described in its coverage of the event at the Detroit Country Club: "Throughout the tournament, Palmer would play four or five holes in a row with great authority. Then he would erase the impression that he is almost as finished a shot-maker as Gene Littler was a year ago by smothering a drive or bumbling unsurely with an explosion shot. He is a sound putter and above all a player of tremendous determination."

A few months later, Palmer made his Masters debut, his first of a record 50 consecutive appearances at the event. When he won in Augusta, Ga., for the first time in 1958, the golfer with forearms like a prize fighter was a big hit with the soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon who had come in for free to help run the scoreboards. It was there that Arnie's Army was born.

"I'm flattered by the fact that people want to talk to me or shake hands with me or get an autograph," he told Esquire in 2014. "I feel flattered that they want that. And I try to do all I can to accommodate."

President Dwight Eisenhower considered him a son, and when Palmer was dominating in the 1960s, the number of players in the U.S. doubled to 10 million and a new course in America was built just about every day for 10 straight years. He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods.

"The King" also was instrumental in the success of the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) for players 50 years and older. He became eligible in its first year (that timing was not a coincidence) and won 10 times on the circuit before retiring from tournament golf in October 2006.

One of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, Palmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

His wife of 45 years, Winnie, died in November 1999 at age 65 of ovarian cancer. He married Kathleen "Kit" Gawthrop in 2005; survivors also include his daughters Amy and Peggy; six grandchildren, including Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour; his brother Jerry; and sisters Sandra and Lois.

comments powered by Disqus