‘Arnold Palmer invented pro golf as it exists today’: The sport’s greatest ambassador dies at 87
Arnold Palmer, the son of a Pennsylvania golf-course greens keeper who combined movie-star magnetism, go-for-broke daring and the nascent power of television to become a seven-time professional major tournament champion and the sport’s first international corporate icon, died Sunday. He was 87.
Alastair Johnson, chief executive of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Palmer died Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh of complications from heart problems. Johnson said Palmer was admitted to the hospital Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the last few days. The United States Golf Assn. had also announced his passing on Twitter.
Palmer captivated golf audiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s with an ungainly, homemade swing and hitch-up-his-pants swagger. He won 62 PGA Tour events and more than 90 tournaments worldwide, but his swath cut far beyond fairways. He was not golf’s most accomplished star, as Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson claimed more major victories.
Sam Snead compiled more PGA wins (82), while five players, but not Palmer, have captured golf’s modern career Grand Slam. (Palmer won four Masters titles, two British Opens and one U.S. Open, but he failed to win the PGA Championship.)
Yet it was Palmer who earned, and never relinquished, the sobriquet “King.” His impact on golf was unequivocal and transcendent. Armed with big biceps and a flat stomach, Palmer brought raw athleticism to a discipline many considered more skill than sport.
He revolutionized sports marketing as it is known today, and his success contributed to increased incomes for athletes across the sporting spectrum.
Palmer’s first professional major victory, at the 1958 Masters, serendipitously intersected with the phenomena of television. His chiseled looks and bold — some called it reckless — style of play made him a compelling lead actor in golf’s weekly playhouse theater.
“Television and Palmer took over golf simultaneously,” Jim Murray, The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist, once wrote.
Alastair Johnson, chief executive of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Arnold Palmer died Sunday of complications from heart problems.
Television and Palmer took over golf simultaneously.
— Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times columnist
Palmer’s historic victories were matched only by his historic collapses. The same man who rallied from seven shots behind on the final day to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado also blew a final-day seven-shot lead to lose the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“He was the Perils of Pauline,” Murray wrote. “Every round was a cliffhanger. Continued next week.”
Palmer’s homemade, corkscrew swing — once likened to someone wrestling a snake — appealed to weekend hackers who also lacked textbook form.
“I was often where they were as I came down the stretch, in the rough, the trees, or up the creek,” Palmer wrote in his 1999 biography, “A Golfer’s Life.”
He boomed low-trajectory shots that might land, as Murray once described, “into a hole or the back of a convertible.”
Palmer chain-smoked L&M cigarettes (he later kicked the habit) and swigged Coca-Cola to calm his nerves — he would later endorse both products.
Arnold Palmer waves to the gallery as he completes his last competitive round in the Masters tournament in 2002.(Dave Martin / Associated Press)
Arnold Palmer gives the thumbs-up during a practice round at the Masters in 2002. The legendary golfer won seven Grand Slam tournament title, including four at Augusta Natonal Golf Club.(Andrew Redington / Getty Images)
Arnold Palmer watches his tee shot at No. 10 during the 2004 Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Legendary golfers (from left) Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player share a moment together after completing the first round of the 2000 Masters.(Dave Martin / Associated Press)
Tiger Woods is helped into his winner’s jacket by golfing great Arnold Palmer after taking a victory at the 2001 Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Fla.(Scott Audette / Associated Press)
Arnold Palmer, right, congratulates Matt Every after his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla., on March 22.(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)
Arnold Palmer begins to celebrate after winning the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills outside of Denver. He trailed by seven strokes at the start of the final round.(Associated Press)
His putting could be sizzling hot or disastrously frigid. Palmer, sometimes to his detriment, never changed his attack approach.
“Critics who have said a safer shot here or there would undoubtedly have won me a few more tournaments are probably correct,” Palmer wrote, adding, “going for the green in two was who I was as a boy — and it’s who I remain as a man.”
Palmer maintained career-long eye contact with a devoted fan base known as “Arnie’s Army.” It was not uncommon for Palmer to chat up bystanders and reporters. Once, when confronted with an ugly lie in the bunker, Palmer solicited advice from Murray.
“OK, Jim,” Palmer said to The Times’ columnist, “you’re always writing about how great Ben Hogan was. How would Hogan do in a situation like this?”
Murray quipped: “Hogan wouldn’t have been in a situation like this.”
However, it was Palmer’s appeal to nongolfers, and women especially, that made him a crossover star. Television brought Palmer into Middle America’s living room, where he became a multimillionaire who never lost a connection to the common Joe.
“The camera is strange,” Frank Chirkinian, the longtime CBS golf producer who worked his first Masters in 1959, once told Golf Digest. “It’s all revealing. It either loves you or hates you, and it loved Arnold.”
With a handshake agreement in 1960, Palmer joined forces with Mark McCormack and a fledgling company, International Management Group. The condition, at inception, was that Palmer would be McCormack’s only client.
McCormack helped promote Palmer’s brand into a corporate empire, while IMG grew to become a world-renowned sports, entertainment and media management company.
Palmer’s second Masters victory in 1960, punctuated with a birdie-birdie finish, sparked a dizzying array of income opportunities.
McCormack’s brilliance, Palmer once wrote, was not tying endorsements to his golf success. Under the umbrella of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, Palmer pitched sporting equipment, cars, clothing, insurance, soft drinks, cigarettes, and household and hardware products. He created his own chain of dry cleaner centers.
Palmer had his limits, once turning down a chance to promote what he called “a revolutionary manure dispenser.”
Palmer insisted, he said, on promoting products he used or believed in. That tractor he rode in those popular TV commercials was his father’s, and it ran on Pennzoil long before the endorsement deal was signed.
Palmer obtained his pilot’s license and became a true jet-setter, zigzagging across the globe to promote his interests. He hobnobbed, golfed and dined with entertainers, dignitaries and presidents, developing close friendships with entertainer Bob Hope and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1966, as part of a well-kept secret to mark his 37th birthday, Palmer received a surprise knock on his door at his home in Latrobe, Pa.
“You wouldn’t have a room to put up an old man for the night, would you?” the man, carrying an overnight bag, wondered.
It was Eisenhower.
Palmer was so popular he once guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” and one of his favorite beverages, a mix of ice tea and lemonade, became a bar drink still known as an “Arnold Palmer.”
The apex of Palmer’s golfing powers was relatively short. He won all seven of his professional majors between 1958 and 1964.
Palmer’s last PGA Tour victory was at the 1973 Bob Hope Classic, yet his popularity and earning power never waned.
At age 79, Palmer ranked No. 4 on Golf Digest’s 2008 list of top 50 money makers with yearly earnings of more than $30 million. He trailed only three active players on the PGA Tour — Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.
“Arnold Palmer invented pro golf as it exists today,” sportswriter Rick Reilly once wrote. “Ben Hogan didn’t make golf popular. Hogan was as much fun to cuddle as a porcupine. Nicklaus didn’t do it.... Palmer’s the King. He’s the one who made it all possible.”
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born in Youngstown, Pa., on Sept. 10, 1929 — not too soon before the stock market crashed. He was the oldest of four children by Deacon and Doris Palmer.
The Palmers lived in nearby Latrobe, where Deacon provided golf lessons and served as greens keeper at Latrobe Country Club. Arnold couldn’t swim in the pool or play golf while members were present, a slight he rectified in 1971 by purchasing the club.
As a boy, Palmer earned money shagging balls and sneaked practice shots at every available chance. Becoming a caddie later enabled him to play Mondays, when the course was closed.
Palmer had large, strong hands, and he used them to fashion a vise-like grip and a powerful, unorthodox swing. Palmer wrote in his autobiography that his father, a tough disciplinarian, told him not to complicate things.
“Hit it hard, boy,” he said simply. “Go find it and hit it hard again.”
“Deke” Palmer never allowed anyone to tinker with Arnold’s mechanics.
As Palmer’s game evolved, he played out dramatic U.S. Open finishes in his back-nine imagination. He read books on his golf heroes, Bobby Jones in particular.
“Golf would be my ticket somewhere, I told myself,” Palmer wrote. “I just couldn’t say where it would lead me.”
At Latrobe High School, he won consecutive Pennsylvania schoolboy championships before following his friend Buddy Worsham to play golf at Wake Forest University.
Palmer emerged as a top collegiate player, but his time in North Carolina was cut short when, in 1950, Worsham was killed in an automobile accident.
Palmer was devastated. “Wake without Bud was unthinkable,” he would later recount. Palmer finished out the school term and then joined the Coast Guard, where he spent three years before returning to Wake Forest. He won the Atlantic Coast Conference golf championship but left before completing his degree.
The turning point of his career came with his victory at the 1954 United States Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit — Palmer always considered it his “eighth” major.
Palmer’s father, not one to lavish praise, told Arnold afterward: “You did pretty good, boy.”
Arnold wrote that his heart swelled “nearly to the breaking point.”
Wong’s masterly touch brought a poetic quality to Disney’s “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation. The pioneering Chinese American artist influenced later generations of animators. Full obituary(Peter Brenner / Handout)
After bursting onto the scene opposite Gene Kelly in the classic 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” Reynolds became America’s Sweetheart and a potent box office star for years. Her passing came only one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died at the age of 60. Reynolds was 84. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
George Michael, the English singer-songwriter who shot to stardom in the 1980s as half of the pop duo Wham!, went on to become one of the era’s biggest pop solo artists with hits such as “Faith” and “I Want Your Sex.” He was 53. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
The thoracic surgeon came up with an anti-choking technique in 1974. So simple it could be performed by children, the eponymous maneuver made Heimlich a household name. He was 96. Full obituary(Al Behrman / Associated Press)
The hugely popular south Indian actress later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu. She was 68. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Best known for her portrayal of Carol Brady on “The Brady Bunch,” Henderson
portrayed an idealized mother figure for an entire generation. Her character was the center of the show, cheerfully mothering her brood in an era when divorce was becoming more common. She was 82. Full obituary
Dubbed “Dr. Wonderful” by the media, the Texas surgeon performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States and the world’s first implantation of a wholly artificial heart. He also founded the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. He was 96. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
The prominent Los Angeles attorney went from defending his father, a powerful mob boss, to representing celebrities, corrupt businessmen, drug kingpins and the so-called Hollywood Madam, Heidi Fleiss. He was 70. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The award-winning journalist wrote for the Washington Post and the New York Times before becoming an anchor of public television news programs “PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week.” Her career also included moderating the vice presidential debates in 2004 and 2008. She was 61. Full obituary(Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images)
Instantly recognizable for his long white mane and a rich, hearty voice, Russell sang, wrote and produced some of rock ‘n’ roll’s top records. His hits included “Delta Lady,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “A Song for You” and “Superstar.” He was 74. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
The singer-songwriter’s literary sensibility and elegant dissections of desire made him one of popular music’s most influential and admired figures for four decades. Cohen is best known for his songs such as “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire.” He was 82. Full obituary(Joel Saget / AFP / Getty Images)
Reno was the first woman to serve as United States attorney general. Her unusually long tenure began with a disastrous assault on cultists in Texas and ended after the dramatic raid that returned Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father. She was 78. Full obituary(Dennis Cook / Associated Press)
The 1960s radical was in the vanguard of the movement to stop the Vietnam War and became one of the nation’s best-known champions of liberal causes. He was 76. Full obituary(George Brich / Associated Press)
Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest in 1975. In 1992, she also became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits,” reaching the highest peaks of the seven continents. She was 77. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
Nixon was the creative force behind the popular soap operas “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.” She was a pioneer in bringing serious social issues, like racism, AIDS and prostitution, to daytime television. She was 93. Full obituary(Chris Pizzello / Associated Press)
The former Israeli president was one of the founding fathers of Israel. The Nobel peace prize laureate was an early advocate of the idea that Israel’s survival depended on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. He was 93. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
A seven-time professional major tournament champion, Palmer revolutionized sports marketing as it is known today, and his success contributed to increased incomes for athletes across the sporting spectrum. He was 87. Full obituary(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)
Known as the Vatican’s exorcist, Amorth, a Roman Catholic priest, helped promote the ritual of banishing the devil from people or places. He was 91. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The American playwright was known for works such as “The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance.” He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama three times. He was 88. Full obituary(Jennifer S. Altman / For the Times)
The ska pioneer and Jamaican music legend recorded thousands of records, including such hits as “Al Capone” and “Judge Dread.” He helped ignite the ska movement in England, and later helped carry it into the rock-steady era in the mid-1960s. He was 78. Full obituary(Larry Ellis / Getty Images)
Known as “the first lady of anti-feminism,” Schlafly was a political activist who galvanized grass-roots conservatives to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and, in ensuing decades, effectively push the Republican Party to the right. She was 92. Full obituary(Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)
O’Brian helped tame the Wild West as the star of TV’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and was the founder of a long-running youth leadership development organization. “Wyatt Earp” became a top 10-rated series and made O’Brian a household name. He was 91. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Jerry Heller, the early manager of N.W.A, was an important and colorful personality in the emerging West Coast rap scene in the 1980s. Heller was 75. Full obituary(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Two-time Oscar nominee Gene Wilder brought a unique blend of manic energy and world-weary melancholy to films as varied as 1971’s children’s movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and the 1980 comedy “Stir Crazy.” He was 83. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The beloved top-selling Mexican singer wooed crowds on both sides of the border with ballads of love and heartbreak for more than four decades. He was 66. Full obituary(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Known as the “queen of knitwear,” Sonia Rykiel became a fixture of Paris’ fashion scene, starting in 1968. French President Francois Hollande praised her as “a pioneer” who “offered women freedom of movement.” She was 86. Full obituary(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)
The conservative political commentator hosted the long-running weekly public television show “The McLaughlin Group” that helped alter the shape of political discourse since its debut in 1982. He was 89. Full obituary(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)
Best-known for his post-bop recordings for Blue Note Records in the 1960s and 1970s, the inventive jazz vibraphonist played with a litany of jazz greats as both bandleader and sideman during a career spanning more than 50 years. He was 75. Full obituary(Scott Chernis / Associated Press)
The British actor, who was 3-foot-8, gave life to the “Star Wars” droid R2-D2, one of the most beloved characters in the space-opera franchise and among the most iconic robots in pop culture history. He was 81. Full obituary(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)
For many in L.A., Folsom was the face of the Parent Teacher Student Assn., better known as the PTSA or PTA. He served as the official and unofficial watchdog over the Los Angeles Unified School District and wrote about his experiences in his blog. He was 69. Full obituary(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Fountain combined the Swing Era sensibility of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman with the down-home, freewheeling style characteristic of traditional New Orleans jazz to become a national star in the 1950s as a featured soloist on the “The Lawrence Welk Show.” He was 86. Full obituary(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lowery was a pioneer in efforts to help people suffering from poverty, addiction and mental illness move out of tents and cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’ sidewalks and into supportive housing. She was 70. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Nixon, a Hollywood voice double, can be heard in place of the leading actresses in such classic movie musicals as “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady.” She was 86. Full obituary(Rob Kim / AFP/Getty Images)
The department store heir’s widow was a socialite and philanthropist who hobnobbed with the world’s elite, epitomized high fashion and was best friends with former first lady Nancy Reagan. She was 93. Full obituary(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)
The author and teacher was long established as a leading literary figure of Southern California. Her works include “Golden Days,” “There Will Never Be Another You” and her memoir “Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” She was 82. Full obituary(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The Nazi concentration camp survivor won the Nobel in 1986 for his message “of peace, atonement and human dignity.” “Night,” his account of his year in death camps, is regarded as one of the most powerful achievements in Holocaust literature. He was 87. Full obituary(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
One of the greatest basketball coaches of any gender or generation, Summitt spent 38 years as coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team before dementia forced her early retirement. She was 64. Full obituary(Wade Payne / Associated Press)
The iconic New York Times fashion photographer darted around New York on a humble bicycle to cover the style of high society grand dames and downtown punks with equal verve. He was 87. Full obituary(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)
Aguirre was best known for his portrayal of the towering “Profesor Jirafales,” the likable and often disrespected giraffe teacher on the 1970s-era hit show “El Chavo del Ocho.” The screwball comedy helped usher in an era of edgier comedy in Mexico and elsewhere. Aguirre was 82. Full obituary(AFP / Getty Images)
The three-time heavyweight boxing champion’s brilliance in the ring and bravado outside it made his face one of the most recognizable in the world. He was 74. Full obituary(John Rooney / Associated Press)
Like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman became part of a group of journalists who set the tone for storytelling on television. He was on “60 Minutes” for 46 years, holding the longest tenure on prime-time television of anyone in history. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The first African American chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Williams steadied the agency in the tumultuous wake of the 1992 riots but was distrusted as an outsider by many officers and politicians. He was 72. Full obituary(Nick Ut / Associated Press)
Best known for her role as Marie Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Roberts won four Emmys for her work on that show and one for her work on “St. Elsewhere.” She was 90. Full obituary(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)
The country music legend sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and penned a stream of No. 1 hits. He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee,” which seemed to mock San Francisco’s anti-war hippies. He was 79. Full obituary(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The acclaimed Native American historian was the last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. He was 102. Full obituary(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister brokered an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history. He was 89. Full obituary(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
The Iraqi-born British architect was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. She made her mark with buildings such as the London Aquatics Centre, the MAXXI museum for contemporary art in Rome and the innovative Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain. She was 65. Full obituary(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)
The former television talk show host became the first openly gay man to serve on the Los Angeles City Council. He advocated for the homeless, gays and lesbians and other liberal causes. He was 70. Full obituary(Christina House / For The Times)
Garry Shandling’s comedic career spanned decades, but he is best known for his role as Larry Sanders, the host of a fictional talk show. His sitcom pushed the boundaries of TV, influencing shows such as “The Office” and “Modern Family.” He was 66. Full obituary.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Ken Howard was president of SAG-AFTRA and an actor known for his role on TV’s ‘The White Shadow.’ He championed the merger of Hollywood’s two largest actors unions, which had a history of sparring. He was 71. Full obituary(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
The longtime Los Angeles radio disc jockey, whose real name was Art Ferguson, hosted the morning radio show for popular and influential station KHJ-AM in the late 1960s and went on to be a key player in the launch of latter-day powerhouses KROQ-AM and KIIS-FM. He was 71. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran actor built his early career playing heavies and won an Academy Award in 1968 for his supporting role as the tough Southern prison-camp convict who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was 91. Full obituary(Warner Bros. / Getty Images)
A prolific entrepreneur, Mann over the course of seven decades founded 17 companies in fields ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to medical devices. He was 90. Full obituary(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
The Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel but then clashed with the United States when he served a single term as U.N. secretary-general. He was 93. Full obituary(Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
Pro-BMX biker Dave Mirra was one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history. He held the record for the most medals in history with 24. He was 41. Full obituary(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, was the source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early ‘80s, including ‘Shining Star,’ ‘September,’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ He was 74. Full obituary(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
In a career that encompassed everything from big-budget Hollywood movies to classical theater, Rickman made bad behavior fascinating to watch from “Die Hard” to the “Harry Potter” movies. He was 69. Full obituary
The composer and former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic was known for pushing music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures. He was 90. Full obituary(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
The Academy Award winner was revered as one of the most influential cinematographers in film history for his work on classics including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter.” He was 85. Full obituary(Tamas Kovacs / EPA)
Gordon helped revolutionize surfing with the creation of the foam surfboard. His polyurethane boards were lighter and easier to ride, making surfing accessible -- which helped popularize the sport globally. He was in his 70s. Full obituary(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
The attorney and almond farmer was known for his battle to stop the $68-billion California bullet train project from slicing up his almond orchards -- part of a deeply emotional land war that has drawn in hundreds of farming families from Merced to Bakersfield. He was 92. Full obituary
Palmer would not continue his day job — selling paint.
Not long after his U.S. Amateur victory, Palmer fell smitten with 19-year-old Winifred “Winnie” Walzer, whom he encountered at a tournament in Pennsylvania.
“I met him on Tuesday, he asked me to marry him on Saturday,” Winnie once said. The Palmers were married 45 years before her death, at age 65, in 1999.
It was a whirlwind courtship, to say the least.
The couple eloped in 1954 and Palmer, using borrowed money, turned professional. The PGA of America in those days prohibited rookies from earning prize money during their first six months on tour — an edict that chafed Palmer for years and complicated his relationship with the organization that staged the only major championship he wouldn’t win.
Winnie kept the family books as the newlyweds toured the circuit, living in a trailer pulled by a coral pink Ford. Palmer won his first tournament, the Canadian Open, in 1955 and garnered $7,958 that year in prize money.
He won four tournaments each of the next two years before a major breakthrough at the 1958 Masters, his final-day eagle at the par-5 13th hole foretelling his penchant for dramatics.
“Arnold Palmer was born April 6, 1958, on the back nine of Augusta National Golf Club,” Sports Illustrated would later reflect.
Palmer was motivated after overhearing Hogan say to a fellow player in the clubhouse before the tournament: “How the hell did Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?”
The comment hurt Palmer, and the two legends were never friends.
Palmer’s love affair with the Masters lasted a half-century. He won the event four times — 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964. He played in 50 consecutive events before taking final bows in 2004. Only Gary Player, with 51, has more Masters’ appearances.
It was at Augusta in the late 1950s that “Arnie’s Army” was first enlisted to lead Palmer’s many “charges.” The tournament then used volunteer soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon (later renamed Ft. Gordon) to man the scoreboards. Palmer recalled seeing one of men holding a small “Arnie’s Army” sign.
“I found out they were guys that had actually taken leave,” Palmer recounted at his final Masters news conference. “They weren’t just given permission to come out there and do that ... and it expanded from there.”
The Masters may have been Palmer’s favorite tournament, but it wasn’t always kind to him.
In 1959, he blew a back-nine lead on Sunday and lost to Art Wall. Two years later, needing par on the final hole to become the first player to win consecutive Masters, Palmer made double-bogey 6 and handed Player his first green jacket.
It was all part of being Arnold Palmer, once described by a writer as “that cataclysm with legs.”
Beginning in 1960, Palmer ushered in what has been called golf’s Golden Era. He followed his Masters victory that year with a stunning comeback at Cherry Hills to win his only U.S. Open. Palmer entered the final round trailing leader Mike Souchak by seven shots — with 13 players separating Palmer from the leader.
Palmer walked into the clubhouse between the third and fourth rounds — both were played Saturday in those days — and stumbled upon sportswriters Dan Jenkins and Bob Drum.
Palmer wondered out loud if a final-round 65 would give him a chance to win.
“You’re too far back,” Drum, who had chronicled Palmer’s rise for the Pittsburgh Press, said.
As he recounted in his autobiography, Palmer uttered the line “watch and see.”
Palmer shot exactly 65 to hold off Hogan and a cherubic amateur from Ohio named Nicklaus.
Palmer became golf’s “king” in 1960, his watershed year. He won two majors — and eight tournaments overall — and was credited for making the British Open important again in the United States. Many American players in the 1950s thought it cost-prohibitive to play overseas, but Palmer considered the British Open an essential cog in the modern Grand Slam.
Palmer finished second at the British on his first trip in 1960, and won the event the next two years.
“It was a nice championship to place on a list of achievements but not an essential one,” the London Independent wrote of American indifference to the event. “ ... Palmer, almost single-handedly, changed all that.”
Palmer won 29 events between 1960 and 1963, but two fast risers on the circuit, Player and Nicklaus, would eat into the King’s dominance and create a triple threat known as golf’s Big Three.
Palmer’s rivalry with Player and Nicklaus — especially Nicklaus — endured years and helped fuel the sport’s increasing popularity.
“We knew we were good theater — and we enjoyed it at least as much as the fans and reporters did,” Palmer wrote. “But most of all, we wanted to beat each other to a pulp.”
In what many considered a major turning point in golf’s transfer of power, Nicklaus in 1962 ventured into Pennsylvania Palmer Country and defeated the King in a playoff to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
“You’d better watch the fat boy,” Palmer had warned writers before the tournament.
Nicklaus would eclipse Palmer as the game’s top player and go on to win 18 professional majors. Their relationship was complicated, cordial and fiercely competitive.
Palmer did not win another major after the 1964 Masters.
In the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, however, he incredibly blew a seven-shot lead with nine holes left and lost a next-day playoff to Billy Casper.
Palmer admitted he quit playing the contenders in his pursuit to break Hogan’s U.S. Open record shot total of 276.
Palmer lost three U.S. Opens in playoffs and finished tied for second three times at the PGA Championship. The chapter on the PGA in Palmer’s biography is fittingly titled: “Missing Link.”
Palmer confessed that tending to his burgeoning business empire may have taken a toll on his golf game. After 1962, he also gave up smoking regularly on the course, which may have affected his nerves.
Palmer, though, never surrendered his icon status. He continued to build his businesses, design golf courses and serve as the sport’s preeminent advocate and ambassador. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
His final senior tour victory came at the 1988 Crostar Classic. He played his last U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1994, and his final British Open in 1995.
Palmer overcame prostate cancer in the late 1990s and resumed his playing career then officially retired from competitive golf Oct. 12, 2006, withdrawing after four holes of the Administaff Small Business Classic.
Not surprisingly, Palmer completed the round so as to not disappoint fans who had come see him play.
In a 1985 interview with The Times, Palmer said he never forgot his humble beginnings.
“I grew up in poverty on the edge of a golf course,” he said. “I saw how people lived on the other side of the tracks, the upper crust and the WASPs at the country club. We had chickens and pigs in our yards. We butchered every year. I’ll never forget those things.”
Palmer also hated the moniker bestowed on him.
“There is no king of golf,” he once scoffed. “Never has been, never will be. Golf is the most democratic game on Earth.... It punishes and exalts us all with splendid equal opportunity.”
Palmer and Walzer had two daughters, and grandson Sam Saunders plays on the PGA Tour. Palmer married Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in 2005.
Vin Scully final press conference
Vin Scully's Final Press Conference Part One (of Four)
Vin Scully's Final Press Conference Part Two (of Four)
Vin Scully's Final Press Conference Part Three (of Four)
Vin Scully's Final Press Conference Part Four
Dufresne is a former Times staff writer. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
7:05 p.m.: This article was updated with confirmation of Palmer’s death by Alastair Johnson and details about survivors.
This article was originally published at 6:05 p.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.