Arnold Palmer brought a country-club sport to the masses with a hard-charging style, charisma and a commoner’s touch, at ease with both presidents and the golfing public, and on a first-name basis with both, “The King,” died on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
He was 87. Alastair Johnson, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed that Palmer died last afternoon 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.
Palmer ranked among the most important figures in golf history, and it went well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins. His good looks, devilish grin and go-for-broke manner made the elite sport appealing to one and all. And it helped that he arrived about the same time as television moved into most households, a perfect fit that sent golf to unprecedented popularity.
“If it wasn’t for Arnold, golf wouldn’t be as popular as it is now,” Tiger Woods said in 2004 when Palmer played in his last Masters. “He’s the one who basically brought it to the forefront on TV. If it wasn’t for him and his excitement, his flair, the way he played, golf probably would not have had that type of excitement.
Beyond his golf, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for scores of other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. Some four decades after his last PGA Tour win, he ranked among the highest-earners in golf.
“Thanks Arnold for your friendship, counsel and a lot of laughs,” Woods tweeted last night. “Your philanthropy and humility are part of your legend. It’s hard to imagine golf without you or anyone more important to the game than the King.”
On the golf course, Palmer was an icon not for how often he won, but the way he did it.
He would hitch up his pants, drop a cigarette and attack the flags. With powerful hands wrapped around the golf club, Palmer would slash at the ball with all of his might, then twist that muscular neck and squint to see where it went.
“When he hits the ball, the earth shakes,” Gene Littler once said.
Palmer rallied from seven shots behind to win a US Open.
He blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to lose a US Open.
“I’m pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint,” Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. “I would like to think that I left them more than just that.”