Golf legend, Latrobe native Arnold Palmer dies at 87
September 26, 2016 12:37 AM
Honorary starter Arnold Palmer gives the thumbs up from his chair on the first tee to help begin the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7.
Carlo Allegri/AFP/Getty Images
This file photo taken on March 11, 1997 shows golf great Arnold Palmer before a press conference at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla.
Post-Gazette file photo
Arnold Palmer driving off the tee with part of his army behind him in 1960 in Oakmont.
Amy Sancetta/Associated Press
Golfing legend Arnold Palmer tees off on the seventh hole of the 6th Annual CVS Charity Classic golf tournament at the Rhode Island Country Club in Barrington, R.I., on June 28, 2004.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Arnold Palmer watches his ball after hitting off the first tee at the Allianz Championship in West Des Moines, Iowa in 2001.
Ernie Sisto/The New York Times
Arnold Palmer digs out of a sand trap during a tournament at the Pine Hollow Golf Club in East Norwich, N.Y., on June 28, 1958. Palmer, the charismatic face of golf, has died at 87. He helped bring the sport (and a drink) to the masses.
William E. Sauro/The New York Times
Arnold Palmer, on his way to a trophy ceremony, gets a congratulations from Jack Nicklaus at the Thunderbird Golf Classic at the Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, N.J., Sept. 24, 1967.
The New York Times
Arnold Palmer during a tournament at the Pine Hollow Golf Club in East Norwich, N.Y., June 28, 1958.
Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images
Arnold Palmer stands by a plaque that was installed on the course at Augusta National Golf Club to mark the anniversary of Palmer's 40th Master's Tournament in 1995.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Jack Nicklaus will never forget the first time he saw Arnold Palmer.
He was on the golf course at Sylvania (Ohio) Country Club, practicing and getting ready for the 1954 Ohio Amateur. Nicklaus was only 14 at the time, one of the youngest players in the field.
When it started to rain, Nicklaus decided to go to the clubhouse. Nobody else was on the course. But, as he passed the practice range, one player was there, hitting balls in the downpour.
“I had no idea who it was and I watched this guy, he looked like Popeye hitting these drilling 9‑irons that were going about 12 feet high,” Nicklaus said. “I said, you know, look at this guy, man, this guy’s strong. Boy, can he hit. He’d really drill it.
“So I watched him for about 20 minutes or so and then I walked in the clubhouse and said, ‘Who in the world is that out on the practice tee? I said, that guy looks some kind of strong.’ He says, ‘Oh, that’s our defending champion, Arnold Palmer.’”
That was the first time Nicklaus had ever seen the man who would become his chief rival and long-time friend.
Arnold Palmer not only seemed larger than life, he was larger than life. There were greater champions in history — Nicklaus, for example, won 11 more major championship than Palmer (7) — but there was never a player who popularized the game and brought it to the masses like the man who grew up in Latrobe and never left, despite his immense celebrity.
Palmer, 87, died Sunday at UPMC Shadyside, where he was scheduled to have heart surgery Monday. He was admitted to UPMC Presbyterian Thursday to undergo heart tests.
He leaves behind a legacy that goes far beyond the boundaries of Western Pennsylvania, where he won the first of his five West Penn Amateur titles in 1947 as a senior at Latrobe High School and went on to the win the U.S. Amateur (1954) and 62 times on the PGA Tour. He has been in failing health since the fall of 2015 and made his last real public appearance on the first tee of the 2016 Masters, joining Nicklaus and long-time friend Gary Player for the ceremonial opening tee shots, even though Palmer did not hit a drive.
The son of a groundskeeper who always taught him to leave the course better than he found it, Palmer left the game bigger and even better than he found it, growing into a legend that made him maybe the most famous golfer of all time.
With his magnetic personality, charming good looks and the swashbuckling playing style of a matador, Palmer wooed massive galleries known as Arnie’s Army from Oakmont to the links landscape of Scotland, from Pebble Beach to South America, stomping through and around courses merely to get a glimpse of the man with the sudden, thrusting swing and distinctive whirly-bird finish.
In his book, “Making the Turn: A Year Inside the PGA Tour,” former player Frank Beard said of Palmer’s immense popularity with the galleries, “Hell, if he peed in the fairway they went crazy.”
“He seems to capture the imagination of the public,” said the late Billy Casper, who dealt Palmer his most stunning defeat — coming from seven shots back on the final nine holes at the 1966 U.S. Open. “We needed a person such as Arnold at that particular time.”
Palmer was so popular he is generally credited for bringing the sport to television, creating the huge purses available today on the PGA Tour and, in 1960, making it fashionable for American players to journey overseas and play the British Open, something most players of that era opted not to do because of the travel demands.
“We should kiss the footsteps of Arnold Palmer because he’s the guy responsible for making us more money,” former golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez once said. “When Arnie wins a tournament, I make an extra $100,000.”
He was an American idol and hero, a combination of John Wayne and Joe DiMaggio, Jim Thorpe and Amelia Earhart. He had friends such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Hope, but he never lost sight of his roots or contact with his friends at home. Even though he had other homes in different places — Orlando, Fla. And Palm Springs, Calif. — he was always introduced at tournaments as being from Latrobe, Pa.
His appeal transcended the golf course, making him one of richest and most identifiable athletes in the world. As of 2016, more than four decades after he won the last of his 62 PGA Tour events, he remained one of the top three wealthiest athletes in the world, earning nearly twice more than annually than his friend and one-time rival, Nicklaus.
“Wow, this guy, he oozed with charisma,” nine-time major champion Gary Player said the first time he saw Palmer at a tournament in Chicago in 1957. Along with Palmer and Nicklaus, Player formed golf’s so-called “Big Three” back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Palmer won seven major titles — only six players in history won more — but he enjoyed his greatest success at the Masters, winning the green jacket four times. Only Nicklaus won more. The only major title that eluded Palmer was the PGA Championship, depriving him of a chance to become only the fifth player in history to complete golf’s Grand Slam.
His greatest year was 1960 when he won the Masters for a second time and followed that with a victory at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in June, where he shot 65 and came from seven shots off the lead in the final round. Curiously, Palmer’s final-round charge was fueled by a sports writer, Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press, who told Palmer before the round he didn’t have a chance to win. Palmer was so angry he went out and drove the first green to start his victory march. There is a plaque on the first tee at Cherry Hills commemorating the moment.
With two majors already, Palmer went to the British Open amid a frenzy that the young American star might make it three in a row at St. Andrews, considered the home of golf. Despite a par-birdie finish, Palmer ended up finishing second by a stroke to Australian Kel Nagle.
Nonetheless, Palmer’s presence at the British Open forever changed the tournament.
The British Open had fallen so far off the radar for American professionals that, a year earlier at Muirfield, no U.S. players were in the field. The reasons were simple: It was too far to travel and the purse was minuscule ($1,250) compared to, say, the U.S. Open ($14,400).
But Palmer changed all that. He went back the next year and won the British Open at Royal Birkdale, then won again in 1962 at Royal Troon.
“He got Americans to come over here and play,” Nicklaus said. “He brought worldwide recognition to the event, at least from our side of the pond.”
• VIDEO: Arnold Palmer in 2013: "I was raised in golf. My father was a professional, and I was on the golf course at 2 years old. And I never left."
For all his popularity, Nicklaus could never capture the American public the way Palmer did, especially at a young age. And it was evident from the very beginning when Nicklaus, then 22, when he beat Palmer in a playoff in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, despite a raucous pro-Palmer gallery that openly rooted against the Golden Bear and derided him about his weight.
Nicklaus' playoff victory remains one of the benchmark moments in golf because it served as the game's changing of the guard. It would be the first of the Golden Bear's 18 major victories — a record that remains unchallenged — but it would also spark one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. More than anything, it served as the day golf's mantle passed from a King to a Bear.
“It was a challenging time for Arnold because Arnold is this great American icon, and here comes this young man who is beating him,” Player said. “Jack eventually joined him as this great icon, but he had to beat him first, which he continued to do. And a lot of the people were very unkind to Jack, very, very unkind.”
How big was Palmer?
On his 37th birthday, standing in his front yard in Latrobe and talking to a neighbor, Palmer noticed a plane flying overhead. He said to the neighbor, “That looks just like mine.”
Not long after, Palmer had a knock on his front door. Standing there, with an overnight bag in his hand, was President Dwight Eisenhower. Unbeknownst to Palmer, the president had come to celebrate his birthday. His wife, Winnie, arranged for Eisenhower to be picked up in Palmer’s plane.
Palmer was one of the first professional athletes to own a plane and fly it himself to tournaments. A licensed pilot for 55 years, Palmer once said that beside marrying his first wife, Winnie, and deciding to turn professional, the smartest decision he ever made was learning to fly an airplane.
With Winnie, whom he married in 1954, Palmer had two children daughters Amy and Peggy. He has a grandson, Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour. After Winnie died in 1999, Palmer married Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in 2005.
Arnold Palmer holds a birthday cake for his wife, Winnie, who holds his Gold Tee Award in New York in 1966. (Larry C. Morris/The New York Times)
Throughout his career, he endorsed countless products — everything from cardigan sweaters to hair products to Rolex — and started several business ventures. He even has a drink named for him: A mixture of lemonade and ice tea known as “an Arnold Palmer.” In 2001, his company, Arnold Palmer Enterprises, began bottling the drink and eventually reached a deal with AriZona Beverage Co.
“I think the man is exactly the same as the boy,” Dr. Bob Mazero, a long-time friend since high school, said. “All the things you see now are all the things that made him a popular high school student.”
Palmer grew up on a golf course. His dad, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, was the groundskeeper and golf professional at Latrobe Country Club and their home was right off the fifth hole. He had his first set of clubs when he was 4, began caddying when he was 11 and continually improved his game to the point he won the WPIAL and PIAA individual titles as a junior and senior at Latrobe High School in 1946-47.
When he won the U.S. Amateur championship in 1954, beating Bob Sweeney, 2 and 1, Palmer became convinced he should turn pro. He earned his first professional paycheck, $695, in the 1955 Masters and won his first professional tournament, the Canadian Open, a few months later. He won his first Masters in 1958 and won the green jacket again every other year through 1964.
Palmer’s best year was 1963, when he won seven tournaments, and from that point on he won at least one tournament every year until 1970. His final victory came in the 1988 Crestar Classic on the PGA Seniors Tour.
Unlike today’s players who can earn more than $1 million for one single victory, Palmer earned $2,130,239 on the PGA Tour and $2,277,972 on the Senior Tour in his career.
In his book, “A Golfer’s Life,” Palmer said someone asked him a surprising question: Is he afraid of dying?
“No, I replied,” Palmer said. “I’m not particularly afraid of dying — as long as I go the way my father did.”
In February 1976, Deacon Palmer was playing golf with Doc Giffin, Palmer’s longtime press secretary and right-hand man, at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando. After playing 27 holes, Deacon said he felt tired and told Giffin he was going back to the lodge to take a nap before the two of them had dinner and played a little gin rummy.
When Giffin returned to his adjoining room, he noticed the door between their bedrooms was ajar. He went in and found Deacon Palmer on the floor. Apparently, Palmer said, his dad got up when he had a heart attack and died before he reached the floor.
A wood-carved statue of Palmer’s dad sits on the 18th fairway at Latrobe CC. His ashes were spread near a small red bush above the putting surface on No. 18, “where he could easily keep a wary eye out for anyone who failed to properly repair their ball marks,” Palmer said.
Arnold Palmer left the course — and the game — better than he found it.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the hospital where Arnold Palmer died. He died at UPMC Shadyside.
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