Arnold Palmer, 87; 1st star of golf’s television age

Arnold Palmer hits a tennis ball for his dog, Mulligan, to chase behind his office in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on May 21, 2007. : Bloomberg photo by Kevin Lorenzi)

Arnold Palmer, whose everyman persona and golfing prowess helped to popularize the game and earn him millions of dollars, has died. He was 87.

Palmer had been awaiting cardiac surgery in a Pittsburgh hospital when his condition deteriorated, and he died Sunday, according to a statement on the website of his charitable foundation.

One of the 13 inaugural inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, Palmer won 62 U.S. PGA Tour events between 1955 and 1973, including seven major championships.

His popularity was fueled by the growth of television in the late 1950s. Known on and off the course as “the King,” Palmer attracted fans with his intimidating style, pigeon-toed putting stance and powerful swing, characterized by an abbreviated follow-though and head tilt that everyday golfers could relate to.

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“Arnold brought a lot more to the game than just his game,” Jack Nicklaus told Golf World magazine in September 2009. “He was there at the right time with television, and his flair and his charisma were things that were really very, very important to the game of golf at that time.”

Broadcaster Vin Scully once said of Palmer, “In a sport that was high society, he made it ‘High Noon.”‘

Palmer enjoyed mingling with fans. “Arnie’s Army” originated at the 1958 Masters, when soldiers from a nearby base flooded the fairways of Augusta National Golf Club to support him.

“I was very aware that people were enjoying what I was doing,” he told National Public Radio in 2007. “And of course I was enjoying the fact that they were rooting as hard as they were for me.”

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Palmer also circulated with the rich and powerful, playing golf and becoming friends with presidents including Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.

His best season was 1960, when he won eight times. His victory at that year’s U.S. Open remains one of golf’s most significant events, ranking alongside Masters Tournament wins by Tiger Woods in 1997 and Nicklaus in 1986.

Entering the final round at Cherry Hills in Denver, Palmer sat seven strokes off the lead. After driving the green on the 346-yard first hole, he opened with six birdies in the first seven holes for a 30 on the front nine.

He finished with a five-under-par 65 to win by two, marking the lowest final round in U.S. Open history at the time. (Johnny Miller would break that record in 1973, shooting a 63.) Palmer celebrated his come-from-behind win by tossing his hat high into the air on the 18th green. His talent for surging at the end of tournaments became known as the “Palmer Charge.”

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His career was also marked by dramatic defeats. In 1961 he double-bogeyed the final hole at the Masters to lose by a stroke.

Palmer also lost playoffs in three U.S. Opens. In 1966, he lost to Billy Casper after leading by seven shots with nine holes remaining. He was runner-up in the PGA Championship three times, preventing him from capturing the career Grand Slam.

His rivalry with Nicklaus helped define professional golf during the years when its popularity was exploding. While Nicklaus compiled a decisive win in the record books, with 18 major championships to Palmer’s seven, Palmer always enjoyed a clear advantage in public adulation.

“There is something almost biblical in their relationship: Jack is admired, but Arnie is cherished, and it is on him, unfairly, that we still bestow our favor,” Charles McGrath wrote in the New York Times in 2008, reviewing the book “Arnie & Jack,” by Ian O’Connor.

Palmer led the U.S. PGA Tour’s money list four times and in 1963 became the first golfer to win more than $100,000 in a season. He was the winning captain on two Ryder Cup teams and played on the U.S. squad six times.

His final round came at the 2004 Masters, 40 years after he collected his seventh and final major victory at the same tournament.

Arnold Daniel Palmer was born on Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where his father, Deacon, was groundskeeper and club pro at Latrobe Country Club. Palmer, one of four siblings, grew up in a house along the original nine-hole course.

He was 4 when he swung his first golf clubs, which his father had cut down to size, according to a biography on Palmer’s website. He began working as a caddy at the country club at 11. He was a two-time state champion in high school golf and won five West Penn Amateur Championships.

He continued to star at golf while attending Wake Forest University. He left college in his senior year, after the death of a close friend, and began three years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard.

After completing his business studies at Wake Forest, and with golf still beckoning him, Palmer went to work in the Cleveland area as a manufacturer’s representative.

“I would go to work in the morning with a suit on and a tie, and I would sit in offices waiting to see the purchasing agent for a company,” he recalled in an interview with the Gold Channel. “I did that every morning for seven, eight months. I just wasn’t comfortable. I knew my niche wasn’t sitting in an office trying to sell somebody a tapping compound or a paint or a television.”

His victory at the U.S. Amateur golf championship in 1954 completed his return to the sport he loved. He joined the professional tour in 1955.

Palmer’s off-course activities ensured that he remained one of the sport’s highest earners even after he retired. In 2009, he brought in $30 million, mostly through endorsements and other off-course income, placing him fourth on Golf Digest magazine’s top 50 earners list behind Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh.

He helped start International Management Group, which grew into one of the world’s largest sports agencies, after a handshake agreement with the late Mark McCormack.

In 1972, he created the Arnold Palmer Design Co., which has since built about 300 courses in 28 countries. Along with Latrobe, Palmer called the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, his home course after purchasing it in 1971.

Palmer even thought to license the drink — a combination of iced tea and lemonade — that he often enjoyed, and which came to carry his name.

Palmer was also a licensed pilot and in June 1996 became the first person to receive a Cessna Citation X airplane off the production line. Twenty years earlier, he set a new world aviation record with two others by flying a Learjet 36 around the world in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds. An airport in his Pennsylvania hometown is named for him.

In September 2009, Palmer became the second golfer, after Byron Nelson, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, an honor bestowed by President Barack Obama.

He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997 and became an advocate of programs supporting cancer research and early detection.