While other golfers enjoyed more success on the links, it can easily be argued that no golfer did more to raise the profile of professional golf as a global sport than Arnold Palmer, who passed away Sunday at the age of 87.
Originally from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Palmer played golf at Wake Forest University and won the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship.
He turned professional in 1955 and the 25-year-old rookie quickly displayed his ability by claiming the Canadian Open championship. In 1958 he earned his first major with a one-stroke victory at the Masters and went on to be the PGA Tour money leader for the year.
After again winning the Masters in 1960, he claimed his only U.S. Open title with an epic performance at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado.
At a time when the third and fourth (final) rounds were played on the same day, Palmer entered the final round trailing leader Mike Souchak by seven strokes. Also ahead of him were golfing legend Ben Hogan and amateur Jack Nicklaus, both three strokes off the lead.
Arnold’s Army began to grow during the afternoon as he peppered the course with great golf shots while his opponents started to struggle amidst his charge. Palmer registered a final round 65 (six under par) and ended the tournament two strokes ahead of Nicklaus and four ahead of Souchak and five others.
It would prove to be the only U.S. Open victory for Palmer as he lost three other times in a playoff.
Later in 1960, Palmer began growing his international legacy by traveling to Scotland to play in the British Open at a time when few Americans participated in the tournament. Though his hopes of winning the golf grand slam ended with a one-stroke loss to Kel Nagle, Palmer planted the seeds for future American success in the legendary tournament.
In fact, he won the next two British Opens, including defeating Nagle by six stokes in 1962.
Though Palmer won his final major championship at the 1964 Masters, his reputation and legacy as the people’s golfer was just starting to grow.
Palmer finished second (or tied for second) at majors 10 times between 1960 and 1970, including three times at the PGA Championship, which was the only major he never won.
A pioneer in marketing, Palmer had been one of the first professional athletes to sign with a sports agent when he signed with Mark McCormack as the first client of IMG in 1960. Over the next 65 years, Palmer could be seen on television pitching everything from rental cars to motor oil and most recent prescription medication.
He is also known for creating the Arnold Palmer drink, a mixture of lemonade and iced tea. Legend has it that Palmer ordered the non-alcoholic drink during the 1960 U.S. Open and a women who overheard the order later requested the “Palmer drink.”
In his later years, Palmer was a pioneer of the Senior Tour and claimed five senior majors. He was also a mentor for many young professionals. His Bay Hill Club and Lodge near Orlando is one of the regular stops on the PGA Tour and a favorite tournament for tour professionals.
Palmer continued playing at the Masters until 2004 and in recent years had joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who had coupled with Palmer to serve as the “Big Three” of the 1960s, for the traditional opening tee shots of the Masters.
While Palmer will definitely be missed, his legacy as a golf and sports marketing pioneer will live on. RIP Mr. Palmer.