Palmer, Arnold Daniel ("Arnie")

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PALMER, Arnold Daniel ("Arnie")

(b. 10 September 1929 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania), indomitable golf professional and sports hero who ranks among the twentieth century's most successful golfers.

Palmer was born in a small steel town fifty miles east of Pittsburgh to Milfred ("Deacon") Palmer, the golf professional and greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club, and Doris Morrison Palmer, a homemaker. His father taught him to play golf at age five, and remained his only teacher. Attending Latrobe High School, Palmer was the star of its golf team, losing only one match in four years, and winning three Western Pennsylvania junior championships and three Western Pennsylvania Amateur titles.

From 1947 to 1950 Palmer attended Wake Forest College (now Wake Forest University) in North Carolina, where he became a golf star, winning twenty-four amateur titles, including the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship, before turning professional. His studies were interrupted by service in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1950 to 1953, but he then returned to Wake Forest. Golf interfered with school, however, and he did not receive his degree until 1970, when Wake Forest gave him an honorary LL.D. In September 1954, shortly after winning the National Amateur, Palmer met his future wife, Winifred ("Winnie") Walzer of Allentown, Pennsylvania. They were married on 20 December 1954; the couple eventually had two daughters.

Palmer won his first tour tournament as a professional in 1955, the Canadian Open, with a 265, the second-lowest score recorded in the tournament's forty-six-year history. From 1955 to 1973 he won sixty Professional Golfers Association (PGA) tournaments, including seven majors: four Masters championships (1958, 1960, 1962, and 1964), two British Opens (1961 and 1962), and one U.S. Open (1960). Between 1980 and 1988 he won ten tournaments on the Senior PGA Tour. He played on six Ryder Cup teams (1961, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973), accumulating a 22–8–2 record, and captained the team in 1973 and 1975. He was the PGA Player of the Year in 1960 and 1962, and won the Vardon Trophy for lowest score average in 1961, 1962, 1964, and 1967.

In 1960, having won the Masters and the U.S. Open, Palmer became the first top American player since Hogan to play in the British Open. It was a self-conscious (and ultimately successful) effort to restore that tournament to its status as a major, and the Old Course at Saint Andrews, in Scotland, as golf's premier arena. "I always felt this was a championship you had to play to be the complete professional," Palmer said of his decision. In honor of these achievements, he was proclaimed Hickok Athlete of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Palmer, a man of many interests and hobbies, was one of the first postwar professionals to become seriously involved with golf course architecture, and worked as a design consultant with golf architect Frank Duane from 1969 to 1974. In 1975, with architect Edwin Seay, he established the Florida-based Palmer Course Design Company. Palmer's company built courses throughout the United States as well as in Italy, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and, in 1984, the first golf course in the People's Republic of China.

Palmer ranks among the twentieth century's most successful golfers. Long off the tee and a great putter, his charisma and dramatic playing style made him one of America's most popular sports heroes. Some insist that he saved the game while others say that he merely changed it for the better. But all agree that by playing golf as he did, he altered its character, its reputation, and its economics. Millions became fans because they liked to watch this handsome, likeable five-foot, eleven-inch, 175-pound man attack a golf ball. Palmer was the "King," an athlete who came closer than any other to approaching a "fleshy apotheosis," as one sports columnist wrote in 1962. At the end of the century, Tiger Woods emulated Palmer's role as golf-superhero, but the second coming was not as important to the sport as the first.

Before Palmer arrived on the scene, golf fans generally viewed tournaments as aficionados of the game. Of course, everyone had a favorite player, and quite naturally, the most favored were the best. But as Palmer rose to prominence his personality, charm, and his aggressive style of play turned mobs of golf fans into irrational Palmer partisans, a horde that at times proved nearly uncontrollable in their enthusiasms. They were "Arnie's Army," cheering his every move, screaming "Charge!" as he drove to overtake a leader in the final round of a tournament. He did that gloriously and unforgettably in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, when he began the final round by driving the 346-yard first green, and then charging from seven shots down to beat Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. "He gave birth to excitement in the game," Nicklaus remarked.

Palmer's golf swing was unique, combining the violence of a hockey player's slap shot with a power batter's follow-through. The club head was not swung through the ball so much as smashed through it. It was not pretty to watch, but the results were awesome to witness. That so many of those drives landed well outside the fairway simply increased the excitement. More often than not, certainly during his peak years from 1958 to 1964, Palmer blasted his way through weeds and woods onto the green. Once there, he was home. "If I ever had an eight-foot putt, and everything I owned depended upon it," the legendary Bobby Jones once quipped, "I'd want Arnold Palmer to take it for me." Palmer's concentration was total, his desire to win was palpable, and his disappoints were agonizing. He shared all his emotions with his fans, and they gave him their love. He was the charismatic hero incarnate. Palmer's fans loved to see him win, and they hated anyone who made him lose, especially Jack Nicklaus, who in beating Palmer in an eighteen-hole playoff to win the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakmont, began his steady climb to edge the "King" off his throne.

Palmer's personal presence, and the business acumen of his manager Mark McCormack, CEO of International Management Group (eventually the most powerful agency in sports), helped to lay the economic and cultural foundation for professional golf as it is played today. Palmer was the first millionaire PGA tour player and the first golf professional wealthy enough to own (and pilot) an airplane. However, his tournament earnings were small compared to the income he made from endorsements, exhibitions, corporate associations, and numerous business ventures. A prolific writer, Palmer wrote numerous books on the game of golf, including Arnold Palmer's Golf Book: Hit It Hard! (1961); My Game and Yours (1965, rev. 1983); Situation Golf (1970); Go for Broke (1973), with William Barry Furlong; Arnold Palmer's Best 54 Golf Holes (1977); Arnold Palmer's Complete Book of Putting (1986) with Peter Dobereiner; and Play Great Golf (1987).

In the sociology of mass hero worship, whether in sports or politics, the hero must find a means of communicating with his followers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to radio fireside chats to assure Americans that the Great Depression would be conquered, and Arnold Palmer played golf under the watchful lenses of television cameras. No other sports figure of the 1960s was as photogenic, attractive, and as approachable as Palmer. That his play and his personality could be projected visually to millions, and that he knew how to capitalize on his popularity, changed how golf was viewed, and how golfers (and in years to come other athletes) were paid. "Palmer is a legend," former President George H. W. Bush said in 1996. "If you compared him to politicians, he'd be a Winston Churchill."

Autobiographies of Palmer include Portrait of a Professional Golfer (1964); Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey (1994), with Thomas Hauser; and A Golfer's Life (1999), with James Dodson. Biographies include M. H. McCormack, Arnie (1967), and F. Bisher, The Birth of a Legend: Arnold Palmer's Golden Year (1972). Palmer's career is covered in Nick Seitz, Superstars of Golf (1978); Will Grimsley, ed., The Sports Immortals (1972); and Robert J. Condon, The Fifty Finest Athletes of the 20th Century (1990). Articles with information about Palmer are Rick Reilly, "Arnold Palmer," Sports Illustrated (19 Sept. 1994); and Larry Dorman, "An Army Bids Palmer One Last Cheerio at Open," New York Times Biographical Service (July 1995).

Martin Sherwin

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