The right man at the right time, Arnold Palmer transformed an entire sport and, along the way, became an American legend. Palmer, one of the most famous athletes on the planet and a friend to presidents, kings, and movie stars, died Sunday at the age of 87.
Palmer, the son of a Pennsylvania country club greenskeeper, learned the sport of golf as a youth and perfected his game while at Wake Forest. He turned pro in 1955, winning a tournament in his first year as a professional, and three years later won the Masters.
Six of Palmer’s seven major wins came in a short period, from 1960 to 1964, but that happened to be the exact moment when televised sports first became a national obsession. Palmer’s good looks, humble origins, cheerful demeanor and on-course success combined to make him an early favorite of viewing audiences, and “Arnie’s Army” turned out in force wherever he played.
Palmer’s battles with Jack Nicklaus were instant legend, a rivalry that blossomed into a friendship lasting more than half a century. Along with Gary Player, the men created the foundation for modern golf, and remained connected, visible and vibrant long after their playing days were done.
Palmer was one of the first sports figures to create a vibrant off-course empire. In addition to the products he endorsed – everything from tractors to the famous “Arnold Palmer” drink – Palmer oversaw a thriving course design business and helped found The Golf Channel.
Generations of golfers, from world-class pros to weekend hackers, owe Palmer a debt of gratitude. He was a singular force in American sports, and he’ll be deeply missed.