Long live the King: Arnold Palmer's place in history assured

26 September 2016 02:08

Arnold Palmer, one of golf's original 'Big Three' and the man who almost single-handedly revived the Open Championship, has died at the age of 87.

Palmer, whose powerful swing, attacking approach and ready smile attracted millions of loyal fans known as 'Arnie's Army' during his illustrious career, had celebrated his birthday earlier this month.

The Golf Channel, of which Palmer was a co-founder, reported that Palmer died on Sunday afternoon due to complications of heart problems.

Born Arnold Daniel Palmer on September 10, 1929 - just weeks before the Wall Street Crash - the man who would become 'the King' was hardly raised in regal conditions in the blue-collar town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four children.

But crucially his father Deacon, known as Deke, became the greenkeeper at Latrobe Country Club in 1921 and the club professional in 1933, giving his son the ideal start to a career which ultimately produced more than 90 career titles, including seven major championships.

"Dad and I always talked golf," Palmer said. "Before I was five, he had taught me how to grip a club correctly."

Such foundations served Palmer well and he attended Wake Forest College on a golf scholarship before leaving after the death of close friend Bud Worsham in a car crash in their senior year.

Needing to "get my mind cleared up", Palmer joined the United States Coast Guard and served for three years before returning to Wake Forest, but winning the 1954 US Amateur title meant he never finished his degree as the professional game beckoned, with new bride Winifred Walzer by his side.

"I came here first with my wife in 1955 and we parked a trailer on the other side of Daniel Field," Palmer recalled at the 2014 Masters before fulfilling his role as honorary starter with fellow 'Big Three' members Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

"I drove over to the club and the feeling was so overwhelming that I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, and I mean that.

"It was something that I had dreamt about all my life and here I was for my first Masters. It was something that I talked to my father about when I was a baby, and when I was growing up driving a tractor cutting fairways and greens and tees."

Palmer won his maiden PGA Tour title that season in the Canadian Open and his first green jacket at Augusta National in 1958, the start of a seven-year span in which he won all of his seven majors.

He won the Masters in each even-numbered year from 1958 to 1964, two Open Championships and a memorable US Open triumph in 1960 after starting the final round seven shots off the lead at Cherry Hills, but never completed the career grand slam by winning the US PGA Championship - something he considered his greatest regret.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was reviving the fortunes of the Open Championship, which had often been shunned by the leading American professionals due to the low prize money and cost and time involved in travelling across the Atlantic.

Spurred on by the prospect of matching Ben Hogan's feat of becoming the only player to win the Masters, US Open and Open in the same year, Palmer travelled to St Andrews for his Open debut in 1960 and finished second by a single shot to Australian Kel Nagle.

Roared on by new members of Arnie's Army - the name derives from troops from nearby Fort Gordon who were recruited to run the scoreboards at Augusta National during his first Masters win in 1958 - Palmer returned to win the next two Opens at Birkdale and Troon, the latter occasion marking Nicklaus' first tilt at the Claret Jug.

A month earlier the pair had battled for the US Open title at Oakmont, not far from where Palmer was born, and some fans shouted and hissed as Nicklaus prepared to hole the winning putt.

"Over the years people have made more of a rivalry than they should," Nicklaus recalled. "Our rivalry has always been wonderfully competitive, but never bitter.

"I've always said there were times I might have had to battle Arnie's Army, but I never had to battle Arnie himself, except with a golf club and on a golf course."

Off the course, Palmer started many successful business, including a club company and a golf course design firm. Despite his last PGA Tour title coming in 1973, he remained the highest-paid golfer for endorsements until surpassed by Tiger Woods in 1997.

Palmer's career also made a major contribution to the rise of the International Management Group (IMG), the worldwide company which not only serves as the agent for dozens of top players, but also runs tournaments, builds courses and televises events.

Since 1979, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando - which he bought in 1974 - has been a fixture on the PGA Tour, with Woods winning the title eight times.

Palmer's presence traditionally ensures one of the strongest fields of the season, but the tournament host was not afraid to express his disappointment at those who did not play, with a suitably chastised Rory McIlroy belatedly making his debut in 2015.

"It's Arnold's tournament so it's nice to come here and honour him and all that he's done for our game and this Tour," the Northern Irishman said.

But perhaps the final word should go to Palmer's great friend and rival Nicklaus, who was better placed than anyone to appreciate exactly what Palmer did mean for the game they both graced.

"Arnold's place in history will be as the man who took golf from being a game for the few to a sport for the masses," Nicklaus said. "He was the catalyst who made that happen."

::: Palmer, whose first wife Winnie died of ovarian cancer in 1999, is survived by his second wife Kathleen Gawthrop, two daughters, six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Source: PA