It is not hyperbole to say that the golf’s place within popular culture today is due in large part to the powerful presence of Arnold Palmer. He was an integral part of the game’s explosive growth in the 1960s.
His timing was impeccable – as television proliferated and became a major part of the American landscape, it needed a star. And Palmer, who won the game’s biggest events with a boldness and charisma not previously seen, was the perfect star.
He had an everyman quality to him that appealed to the masses. His passion on the course, dramatic whirlybird follow-through and fierce animation was different from the cool intensity that the game’s greats before him had cultivated.
With his thick forearms and wasp waist, he was a sweaty, 5-10, 165-pound blue collar dynamo who joyfully made golf an athletic event – and fans from all walks of life could not get enough. “Arnold Palmer did not play golf, we thought,” wrote Hall of Fame member Dan Jenkins. “He nailed up beams, reupholstered sofas, repaired air conditioning units. He was the most immeasurable of all golf champions.”
“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated. It satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” - Arnold Palmer
As the fans piled up, Palmer became the magnetic leader of the throng that called themselves Arnie’s Army. “I tried to look the whole gallery in the eye,” he said. “Some people think of me as just plain lucky, and I can’t argue with them,” he once said. “I would like to say, however, that a man might be walking around lucky and not know it unless he tries.”
Nobody tried like Palmer. He learned to love the game in Latrobe, Pa., where he was born on Sept. 10, 1929. His father, Deacon, was the professional at the nine-hole Latrobe C.C., and the Palmers lived on the golf course. Arnold dreamed of playing golf for a living, and his victory at the U.S. Amateur in 1954 – the win that remains his favorite – served as his launch pad. Between 1955 and 1973, Palmer blasted off, winning 62 PGA TOUR events, including seven professional major championships: the Masters in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964; the 1960 U.S. Open; and the 1961 and 1962 Open Championships.
Perhaps his finest year was 1960, when he won eight official events. At the Masters, he birdied the final two holes to edge Ken Venturi by one. Two months later at the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, he began the final round on Saturday seven strokes and 14 players behind. But he drove the green on the 340-yard first hole, shot 30 on the front nine, and finished with a 65 to win by two. The Palmer “charge” was born.
While 1960 burnished Palmer’s resume, it was his magical relationship with Augusta National – and the television screen – that pushed him into the stratosphere of American celebrity. Hall of Fame member Frank Chirkinian, the legendary CBS executive who produced 38 consecutive Masters broadcasts from 1958-1996, knew the focus had to be on Arnie. “He absolutely fired up the screen,” Chirkinian said.
Arnold Palmer once set a flight record by circumnavigating the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds.
With a fiery, muscular swing that produced a piercing draw, Palmer was one of the finest drivers of the ball who ever lived, and from a distinctive pigeon-toed stance, a superb putter. He led the PGA TOUR’s money list four times, and in 1963 became the first player to win more than $100,000 in a season. He played on six Ryder Cups teams, and was the winning captain twice.
Palmer’s defeats were as dramatic as his victories. In 1961, he lost the Masters by one stroke when he double-bogeyed the 72nd hole. He lost playoffs in three U.S. Opens, the first to Jack Nicklaus in 1962; the second to Julius Boros in 1963; and the third and most heartbreaking to Billy Casper at The Olympic Club in 1966, where Palmer led by seven strokes with nine holes to play in regulation. Palmer’s best finish in the PGA Championship was second – three times – which kept him from attaining the career Grand Slam.
But his losses, like everything Palmer did, only served to further endear him to his fans. For more than four decades under the spotlight, Palmer’s popularity has not only endured; it has increased. His charitable efforts, including institutions like the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, are legion. Even his favorite drink, a combination of iced tea and lemonade, has become known simply as the “Arnold Palmer” and has turned into a multi-million dollar industry.
On Sept. 12, 2012, Palmer was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He became just the sixth athlete to receive the honor and coupled with the Presidential Medal of Freedom he was awarded in 2004, gives him both of the highest honors the U.S. can give to a civilian.
Both Democrat and Republican Party leaders were at the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda for the ceremony. “I’m particularly proud of anything the House and the Senate agree on,” Palmer joked. Everyone can agree on the power of The King.