Golf Australia

Vale Arnold Palmer, forever The King

Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer in 1959.

Arnold Palmer, arguably the most beloved figure in golf, died today. He was 87.

Known to all golf fans simply as “The King”, Palmer passed away in a Pittsburgh Presbyterian hospital in his home state of Pennsylvania. He had been there since late last week after checking in for heart tests.

In one of its busiest global weeks, the world of golf stopped, stunned by the news that the man who popularised the sport to the masses was no longer present.

As social media overflowed with tributes, Palmer biographer James Dodson told Golfweek: “He represented everything that is great about golf. The friendship, the fellowship, the laughter, the impossibility of golf, the sudden rapture moment that brings you back, a moment that you never forget, that’s Arnold Palmer in spades. He’s the defining figure in golf.”

Palmer’s dashing presence singlehandedly took golf out of the country clubs and into the mainstream. Quite simply, he made golf cool.

“I used to hear cheers go up from the crowd around Palmer,” Lee Trevino told Golfweek. “And I never knew whether he’d made a birdie or just hitched up his pants.”

Palmer was born and spent much of his life in Latrobe. He attended Wake Forest University on a golf scholarship where he was NCAA individual champion for the first time in 1949.

After three years of national service in the Coast Guard, he was selling paint in a Cleveland store when he won the 1954 US Amateur – a win he said changed his life.

Instead of returning to the paint store, Palmer played the following week in the Waite Memorial in Pennsylvania, where he met Winifred Walzer, who would become his wife of 45 years until her death in 1999.

He turned professional in November 1954 and golf was never the same.

His breakthrough win in the 1955 Canadian Open was the first of 62 on the US PGA Tour alone and 92 worldwide as a professional including the 1966 Australian Open at Royal Queensland.

They included four Masters titles, two Open Championships and the 1960 US Open. He was three times a runner-up at the US PGA Championship and had a remarkable 38 top-10 finishes in major championships including in three US Open playoffs.

His popularity spread around the world and he is credited with conceiving the modern grand slam during a conversation with golf writer Bob Drum on a flight to Ireland for the 1960 Canada Cup.

Palmer convinced his American colleagues they could never consider themselves champions unless they had won the Claret Jug.

Nick Faldo, during Palmer’s farewell at St. Andrews in 1995 may have put it best when he said, “If Arnold hadn’t come here in 1960, we’d probably all be in a shed on the beach.”

Dual major champion Mark O’Meara went a step further: “He made it possible for all of us to make a living in this game.”

In his heyday, Palmer famously swung like he was coming out of his shoes.

“What other people find in poetry, I find in the flight of a good drive,” Palmer said.

He never laid up, nor left putts short. His go-for-broke style meant he played out of the woods and ditches with equal abandon, and resulted in a string of memorable charges that effectively prompted “Arnie’s Army”.

It was a far cry from growing up in a two-story frame house off the sixth tee of Latrobe Country Club, where his father, Milfred Palmer, was the greenskeeper and professional.

Palmer was three years old when his father wrapped his hands around a cut-down women’s golf club and instructed him to, “Hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it hard again”.

Palmer’s combination of matinee-idol looks, charisma and blue-collar background made him a superstar just as golf ushered in the television era.

His business empire grew to include a course-design company, a chain of dry cleaners, car dealerships, ownership of Bay Hill Resort & Lodge and even his own Latrobe Country Club, which his father helped build with his own hands and where, as a youth, Palmer was permitted only before the members arrived in the morning or after they had gone home in the evening.

Palmer, also a qualified pilot, designed more than 300 golf courses in 37 states, 25 countries and five continents, including the first modern course built in China, in 1988.

Palmer had been in deteriorating health since late 2015. A ceremonial tee shot at the 2015 British Open was his last public golf shot. Palmer looked increasingly frail in public appearances at the API in March and as an onlooker instead of an active participant during the opening tee shot at the 2016 Masters in April.

Palmer is survived by his second wife, Kit, daughters Amy Saunders and Peggy Wears, six grandchildren, including Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour.

-              with Golfweek

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