September 26, 2016
Arnold Palmer, the champion golfer whose full-bore style of play, thrilling tournament victories and magnetic personality inspired an American golf boom, attracted a following known as Arnie’s Army and made him one of the most popular athletes in the world, died on Sunday, according to a spokesman for his business enterprises. Palmer was 87.
The spokesman, Doc Giffin, said the cause of death was complications from heart problems. Paul Wood, a spokesman for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, confirmed that Palmer died Sunday evening at UPMC Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh.
From 1958 through 1964, Palmer was the charismatic face of professional golf and one of its dominant players. In those seven seasons, he won seven major titles: four Masters, one United States Open and two British Opens. With 62 victories on the PGA Tour, he ranks fifth, behind Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. He won 93 tournaments worldwide, including the 1954 United States Amateur.
But it was more than his scoring and shotmaking that captivated the sports world. It was how he played. He did not so much navigate a course as attack it. If his swing was not classic, it was ferocious: He seemed to throw all 185 pounds of his muscular 5-foot-10 body at the ball. If he did not win, he at least lost with flair.
Handsome and charming, his sandy hair falling across his forehead, his shirttail flapping, a cigarette sometimes dangling from his lips, Palmer would stride down a fairway acknowledging his army of fans with a sunny smile and a raised club, “like Sir Lancelot amid the multitude in Camelot,” Ira Berkow wrote in The New York Times.
And the television cameras followed along. As Woods would do more than 30 years later, Palmer, a son of a golf pro at Latrobe Country Club in the steel town of Latrobe, Pa., almost single-handedly stimulated TV coverage of golf, widening the game’s popularity among a postwar generation of World War II veterans enjoying economic boom times and a sprawling green suburbia.
His celebrated rivalry with Nicklaus and another champion, the South African Gary Player — they became known as the Big Three — only added to Palmer’s appeal, and more often than not, he, not the others, had the galleries on his side.
“Arnold popularized the game,” Nicklaus said. “He gave it a shot in the arm when the game needed it.”
Rising to the Moment
Hitching up his pants as he marched down the fairways or before lining up a crucial putt, Palmer put the word “charge” into golf’s vocabulary in 1960. In the final round of that year’s Masters, he birdied the 17th and 18th holes to win by one stroke. Two months later, in the United States Open at Cherry Hills, near Denver, he shot a final-round 65 to win by two over Nicklaus.
“I seem to play my best in a big tournament,” Palmer said. “For one thing, my game is better adapted to the tougher courses. For another, I can get myself more keyed up when an important title is at stake. I like competition — the more rugged, the better.”
And if he lost, his army did not desert him. In the 1961 Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park, he recorded a 12 on the par-5 ninth hole when he hit four balls out of bounds. Palmer’s fans were deflated, like him, but somehow, his flubs enhanced his appeal. He was human; he could blow a lead or a shot like any duffer. And they liked that he went down swinging, with his lunging, go-for-broke play. If he hit a wayward tee shot to an awkward spot, he usually went for the green, rather than chip the ball safely back to the fairway, as other golfers would have done.
“You can make mistakes when you’re being conservative, so why not go for the hole?” he said. “I always feel like I’m going to win. So I don’t feel I’m gambling on a lot of shots that make other people feel I am.”
His nickname among tour pros was the King, although he never basked in the title. But it fit. He was the first athlete to receive three of the United States’ civilian honors: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the National Sports Award. And he became a one-man multimillion-dollar conglomerate.
Arnie with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player
As the President of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, he supervised the design and development of more than 300 new or remodeled golf courses worldwide, as well as golf clubs and clothing.
He popularized a drink known as the Arnold Palmer, a mixture of iced tea and lemonade now sold under his name on supermarket shelves.
He was a major fund-raiser for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women in Orlando, Fla., and for Latrobe Hospital. He was the original chairman of cable television’s Golf Channel and was a longtime corporate spokesman, notably in a Pennzoil commercial featuring a tractor he had driven growing up on the Latrobe course.
After buying his first plane, a used twin-prop Aero Commander, for $27,000 in 1962, he became the first golf pro to pilot his own plane from tournament to tournament. He graduated to jets in 1966. The Latrobe airport is named for him.
With two co-pilots and an observer, he circumnavigated the globe in 1976 in 57 hours 25 minutes 42 seconds, a world record for jets in the 17,600-to-26,400-pound category. He spent more than 20,000 hours in the cockpit.
He was a part owner of the Pebble Beach Resort in California and principal owner of the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, the site of the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament on the PGA Tour. True to his roots, he made his primary home in Latrobe, but he spent winters at Bay Hill.
His handshake agreement with Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer he met during a three-year stint in the Coast Guard, led to McCormack’s forming the International Management Group, now the world’s foremost sports agency. Palmer was its premier client.
One of Palmer’s disappointments was that he never won the P.G.A. Championship to complete a career Grand Slam — titles at the four major tournaments. That failure especially hurt because his father, the Latrobe Country Club pro, was a P.G.A. member who had taught him the game.
“I should have won it a couple times,” Palmer said. “I wanted it too bad. Everyone was calling it to my attention.”
Palmer competed in the top ranks of a demanding, exacting game against some of history’s greatest players, so heartbreakers were probably inevitable.
At the 1961 Masters, Palmer needed only a par 4 on the 18th hole to become the first golfer to win at Augusta National in consecutive years. But after a good drive, he skidded his 7-iron approach into a bunker, blasted out over the green, chipped 15 feet past the cup and two-putted for a double-bogey 6 to lose by a stroke to Player.
Palmer also lost three 18-hole United States Open playoffs — in 1962 to Nicklaus at Oakmont, near Pittsburgh (it was Nicklaus’s first major victory); in 1963 to Julius Boros at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.; and, in a particularly crushing defeat, in 1966 to Billy Casper at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, after he had led Casper by a seemingly insurmountable seven strokes with nine holes to go in the final round.
Palmer was nonetheless the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1963 and its player of the year in 1960 and 1962. In 1968, he became the first golfer to earn more than $1 million in career prize money on the PGA Tour. The award for the leading money winner each year is now named for him. He was voted The Associated Press’s athlete of the decade for the 1960s.
Palmer was 77 when he played his final competitive round, on October. 30, 2006, at the Administaff Small Business Classic in Spring, Tex., on the Champions Tour. After hitting two balls into the water on the fourth hole, he withdrew with a sore lower back, although he finished his round — without keeping score — because he owed it to his fans, he said.
“The people, they all want to see a good shot,” he said, “and you know it, and you can’t give them that good shot. That’s when it’s time.”
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born in Latrobe, southeast of Pittsburgh, on Sept. 10, 1929, the first child of Milfred and Doris Palmer. (A sister, Lois Jean, who was known as Cheech, was born when Arnold was 2.) His father, who was known as Deacon, then Deke, worked in the steel mills and as a laborer and greenskeeper at the Latrobe club, then a nine-hole course, until 1932 or ’33, when he was named the club pro. Arnold’s mother kept the pro-shop books. The family lived in a modest house on the edge of the course.
Arnold was about 3 when he began to swing a 3-iron with a sawed-off shaft. His father told him, “Hit it hard,” and he did. At age 9, he shot a 45 for nine holes. He went on to win the Western Pennsylvania Junior three times and the Western Pennsylvania Amateur five times before he entered Wake Forest, after graduating from Latrobe High School. In college, he played on two Atlantic Coast Conference championship teams.
“I don’t think I have any stronger nerves than the next man,” he once said. “I suppose it’s just the patience I got from my mother, Doris, and the ornery bullheadedness I got from Pap.”
His relationship with his father ran deep, and Palmer would grow emotional in recalling him. Deke Palmer had polio as a child and walked with a limp, and in 2014 the P.G.A. of America made him the first recipient of an award established in his honor, citing a P.G.A. member who had overcome personal adversity to contribute to the game. He died of a heart attack at 71 in 1976 after playing 27 holes at Bay Hill.
As a Wake Forest student, Palmer was shattered by the death of his classmate and close friend Bud Worsham, the son of the 1947 United States Open champion, Lew Worsham, in an auto accident. Palmer soon withdrew from college during his senior year and served three years in the Coast Guard. After his discharge, he was working as a salesman in Cleveland (where he met McCormack) when he won the 1954 United States Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit.
At an eastern Pennsylvania tournament a few weeks later, Palmer met Winifred Walzer, a 19-year-old who was studying interior design at Pembroke College, an arm of Brown University, in Providence, R.I. Her father was an institutional food distributor in Bethlehem, Pa. She and Palmer hit it off at dinner the next evening, and he proposed to her three days later.
After eloping, they were married in Falls Church, Va., before a small group of Palmer family members and friends on Dec. 20, 1954. (The Walzers stayed away, convinced that their daughter had made a mistake.) The couple traveled the 1955 pro tour in a secondhand trailer.
“For years,” McCormack said, “Winnie handled the family finances and handled them well while heeding certain rules set down by Arnold, whose ideas about money do not follow common practice. She balanced the books, paid the bills, made the travel arrangements, mailed the entry blanks and, in short, devoted her entire attention to one goal: making sure that her husband’s mind was free to concentrate on golf.”
On her husband’s 37th birthday, in 1966, Winnie Palmer arranged for one of Arnold’s special friends to attend the family party in Latrobe as a surprise guest — former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Arnold and the President had occasionally played golf together at Augusta National, where the President, an avid golfer, was a member.
Winnie Palmer died of breast cancer in 1999 at 65. Arnold Palmer married Kathleen Gawthorp, a Californian known as Kit, in 2005 in Oahu, Hawaii. It was her second marriage as well.
She survives him, along with two daughters, Peggy Wears and Amy Saunders; two sisters, Lois Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarni, both of Latrobe; a brother, Jerry, a former general manager at Latrobe Country Club; six grandchildren, including Sam Saunders, a pro who has played in several tour events; and several great-grandchildren.
As a tour rookie, Palmer won the 1955 Canadian Open. He won twice in 1956 and four times in 1957 before earning the green jacket at the 1958 Masters after a controversial ruling. He was leading by one stroke when his tee shot on the 12th hole plugged behind the green. His request for a free drop was refused. Waiting for a ruling on his appeal, he played a provisional ball (for a par 3) and the original ball (for a double-bogey 5).
Two holes later, his appeal was allowed; his provisional ball for a 3 counted. He won by one stroke over Ken Venturi.
“My first Masters win was the toughest and also the most significant,” Palmer said. “The business with the ruling made winning the tournament as hard as anything I’ve ever done, because I wanted to win so badly and because of my feelings for the Masters.”
It was during the 1960 Masters that the name Arnie’s Army was born. Palmer was on his way to victory with a 30-foot birdie putt at the 17th and a 6-foot birdie putt at the 18th when an “Arnie’s Army” sign appeared on the scoreboard.
“Some soldiers at Fort Gordon were acting as gallery marshals,” Palmer said later, alluding to the sign, “and a sportswriter picked up on their excitement.”
Two months later, at the United States Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer trailed the third-round leader, Mike Souchak, by seven shots as he ate a hamburger in the locker room before the final round. In those years, the Open had a 36-hole finish on Saturday, and when Palmer saw Bob Drum, the golf writer for The Pittsburgh Press, he had a question.
Palmer was so angry at Drum, he never finished that hamburger. He went out and drove the first green on what was then a downhill 346-yard hole, then two-putted for a birdie. He also birdied the next three holes, then the sixth and the seventh. He bogeyed the eighth but parred the ninth for a 30 going out, then played the back nine in 35 for a 65 that won that Open by two strokes over Nicklaus, a 20-year-old amateur at the time.
Having won both the Masters and the United States Open, Palmer entered the British Open at St. Andrews, Scotland, hoping to extend his bid for an unprecedented Grand Slam of the four majors in the same year.
Despite a 68 in the last round, Palmer lost that British Open by one stroke to Kel Nagle, an Australian. But he won the British Open in each of the next two years, at Royal Birkdale in England in 1961 and at Royal Troon in Scotland in 1962.
In the 1962 Masters, Palmer trailed by two strokes with three holes remaining, but birdies at the 16th and 17th forced an 18-hole playoff with Player and Dow Finsterwald. After a 38 on the front nine of the playoff, Palmer birdied the 10th, 12th, 13th and 14th holes for a 68 as Player shot 71 and Finsterwald 77. In 1964, Palmer won the Masters by six strokes as Nicklaus and Dave Marr tied for second.
“This was my most satisfying Masters,” Palmer said. “I held the Masters in awe when I was young, and I hold it in awe now.”
That Masters title was his last victory in a major, but he won on the PGA Tour as late as 1973, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic. After he turned 50 in 1979, his mere presence on the Senior PGA Tour, then just formed, helped popularize it while lifting his total prize money on both tours to more than $3.5 million. Even when he struggled on the Senior PGA Tour after surgery for prostate cancer in 1998, his galleries were often the largest, just as they had been four decades earlier.
“I feel the strength of the gallery, especially on a critical shot,” he said in his prime. “Silence is louder than any noise on a golf course — the deathly silence that I sometimes feel and hear when I’m out there. That will tell you how powerful the galleries really are. They have an appreciation of what you’re going through, of what’s happening, and they understand.”
He had a shelf full of honors, and then some. He won the Vardon Trophy for lowest average score on the PGA Tour in 1961, 1962, 1964 and 1967. He was a member of six United States Ryder Cup teams; he was twice the captain, in 1963 and 1975. He was the Presidents Cup team captain in 1996. He was on six victorious World Cup teams, four with Nicklaus as his partner and two with Snead.
Palmer is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla.; the P.G.A. of America Hall of Fame; and the American Golf Hall of Fame. He also won 10 Senior PGA Tour events, including the 1981 United States Senior Open and two Senior P.G.A. Championships. President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony in 2004.
But perhaps no pro golfer enjoyed the simple pleasure of playing the game as much as Palmer did. Including friendly matches and tournaments, he estimated at age 70 that he had played 260 rounds a year. And even though he was hardly the Arnold Palmer who won those seven majors over seven seasons, he still identified with the galleries.
“I did that naturally,” he once said, “because my father told me, ‘Those people in the gallery are all the same as you.’”
Jonah Engel Bromwich contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on September 26, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Arnold Palmer Dies at 87; Face of Golf. Today’s Paper