Palmer, the man who was to golf what Babe Ruth remains to baseball or Michael Jordan to basketball, a figure who helped transform golf from a leisurely weekend activity to a massive sport, was arguably one of the most famous names of the 20th Century. In 2004, he became the first golfer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012.
Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1929, he learned golf from his father, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, and he entered Wake Forest College on a scholarship for the game he loved. After the death of his close friend Bud Worsham in a 1950 car accident, Palmer left school to join the United States Coast Guard. After his stint in the armed forces, he returned to school and golf, capturing the 1954 United States Amateur Championship, deciding after the to go pro. Palmer won seven major tournaments, and he took the Masters four times (in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964), the British Open twice (in 1961 and 1962) and the U.S. Open once (in 1960).
Although many consider golf elitist, Palmer was always humble and open. “I’m flattered by the fact that people want to talk to me or shake hands with me or get an autograph,” he told Esquire in 2014. “I feel flattered that they want that. And I try to do all I can to accommodate.”
This generosity of spirit is one reason why, when most people think golf, there’s a good chance Palmer’s name is one of the first you think of either among active or retired players. There are few athletes of his or any other time so beloved even beyond the sport they played. Some might be more familiar with the drink the Arnold Palmer, the lemonade and iced tea drink that bears his name, and his company has been selling its own version since 2001. The fact that a man who played a game like golf could connect with anybody, from people who only enough time to hit the links maybe once a month to big-money CEOs, and who brought his sport to new heights, means his legacy will live on for a very long time to come.
It was during the 1960s that Palmer rocketed to fame and the term “Arnie’s Army” became a term for his fans after a sign appeared on a scoreboard at the 1960s Masters. Palmer was the first client of IMG, Mark McCormack’s legendary sports management firm, and Palmer later co-founded the Golf Channel — the first cable network devoted to one sport.
He died in a hospital in Pittsburgh, according to several reports. “He was the perfect figure for television, because of his athleticism, his good looks, the way he played the game,” according to his biographer, Jim Dodson (A Golfer’s Life). “He created the excitement that TV symbolized. It was immediate, it was fresh. It could take people right to the scene in ways media had never done.”