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Arnold Daniel Palmer

The popularity of golf today - both as a spectator and a participant sport - probably owes more to the influence of Arnold Palmer than to anyone else who has ever played the game. The arrival of Palmer on the golf scene, coinciding as it did with the explosion of television as the medium for the masses, brought the game to the attention of millions. And when the business acumen of American lawyer Mark McCormack was added to this potent combination, professional golf hit the big time. Arnold Palmer brought something new and different to the game: excitement and naked aggression. When Palmer hit a golf ball, the crowds came out by the thousands to cheer and join what became known as "Arnie's Army."

Palmer, the son of a professional, took to the game at a very young age. He had plenty of natural ability, but an early incident helped turn a young man with considerable talent into one of the greatest names in the history of sport. Playing in a junior match while still in school, the young Arnold Palmer, furious at duffing a shot, threw his club over some trees in a fit of temper. On the way home his father, Deacon, turned on him. "Pap told me," Palmer recalled, "that this is a gentleman's game and he was ashamed of me. If I ever did such a thing again he was through with me as a golfer."

A little later in Palmer's youth, another incident occurred that deeply affected his life. A newfound friend, Buddy Worsham, was killed in a car accident; Palmer was so shaken by this tragedy that he dropped out of the education system and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years.

However, he won the Ohio State Amateur while on leave and, in 1954, after his discharge from the Coast Guard, also won the US Amateur Championship. He then turned professional and met Mark McCormack. The professional game was never the same again. With McCormack handling the business side, Palmer was able to concentrate on what he did best - playing golf. He had a superb putting touch, immense physical strength, fierce determination to go for everything, and an uncanny ability to power his way out of trouble when things went wrong. Palmer's motto was: "If you can see it, you can hole it." It was a philosophy that made him the most exciting player in the game's history. Palmer was always pure theater and his swashbuckling style helped to make him the people's hero.

Before he jauntily strolled into our consciousness, golf was a rich man's game. Strictly country club. Golfers who talked to the common folk had to have their noses lowered first. Then came Arnold Palmer. Here was a guy who looked like one of us. A guy who was rough around the edges. He was a big hitter with an iffy short game. Just like us.

His contortions looked like ours. He had that wild swing, that crooked smile. There was the way he'd hitch up his slacks. When he missed a shot, we missed. He was almost always coming from behind, making that charge. Just like we wanted to do. When he won, we all won.

At a time when television was first coming into our homes, Arnie was the guy next door. He came into our living rooms with an approachability, grittiness and charisma that made us want to watch golf. Heck, it made us want to golf. "In a sport that was high society," broadcaster Vin Scully said, "he made it High Noon."

We pulled for him in at the 1960 Masters. It appeared the victory would go to Ken Venturi, who was sitting in Butler Cabin with a one-stroke lead. But Palmer, with those big drives and pigeon-toed putts, tied him by rolling in a 27-footer on 17. Then another birdie on 18 gave him the stunning victory. It was the sort of finish that led the legendary Bobby Jones to say, "If I ever had to have one putt to win a title for me, I'd rather have Arnold Palmer hit it for me than anybody I ever saw."

Two months later at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver, Palmer overcame a seven-shot deficit on the last day to win the U.S. Open. Driving the par-four first green, he went on to get six birdies on the first seven holes in firing a blazing 30 on the front nine. His 6-under 65 gave him the victory by two strokes over Jack Nicklaus. A toss of his visor into the air galvanized Palmer's legend. He had become "The King" -- a king for the masses. We became a part of Arnie's Army.

Palmer's all-or-nothing attitude dazzled the British golfing public when he first crossed the Atlantic in the early 1960s to breathe new life into the by then slightly flagging Open Championship. He single-handedly revived its fortunes. When he kept coming back to the event, the other top American players followed him, thus restoring the tournament to its premier position in world golf.

In 1961 and 1962, Palmer won back-to-back British Open championships. His victories at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon made it cool for Americans to go to the British Open again. "When Palmer went," said former U.S. Golf Association executive director Frank Hannigan, "all the other Americans went, too, and the British Open was restored to its former majesty."

Apart from his two British Open victories, he won the US Masters four times ( 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964) and finished second twice. He won only one US Open, though he was runner-up four times, and, as a tribute to his contribution to the US Open Palmer was extended a special invitation to play in the 1994 Championship.

Palmer was never better than second in the USPGA and was the leading US money winner in 1958, 1960, and 1962-63. He later helped to establish the immense popularity of the US Senior Tour winning 10 events from 1980-88 as well as the US Senior Players in 1984-85.

Along with the Army came the riches of bigger purses, increasing from $820,360 in 1957 to $3,704,445 in 1966. Palmer became golf's first millionaire. That was on the course. Off the course, he was becoming the sport's first big-time businessman -- everything from the International Management Group agency to golf-course design to clothing to auto dealerships to The Golf Channel.

Golf itself became a financial empire because of Palmer. Veteran golfer Charles Sifford said that every pro should pay homage. "If it wasn't for Arnold, some of these scraggly wimps would be out picking cotton today," he said. "If they realized what he meant to golf, they'd get down and kiss his feet."

Palmer's close calls are as legendary as his victories. He needed only a par on the final hole to win the 1961 Masters. Instead, he double-bogeyed, and Gary Player won. At the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, he had a five-stroke lead going to the 69th hole. Incredibly, he lost all five strokes on the next three holes and fell into a tie with Billy Casper. In the playoff the next day, Palmer was ahead by two strokes with eight holes left but lost by four.

His putter started to fail him in the mid- and late-60s, but Palmer's business acumen had already begun to emerge. He became sport's pre-eminent pitchman. By the late '90s, his annual endorsement income approached $15 million -- more than three decades after his last major victory.

Even with the ups and downs on the course, Palmer's charisma never waned. His golf career enjoyed a renaissance in 1980, when he won the first Senior Tour event he ever entered -- the PGA Senior Championship. A year later, he became the first former U.S. Open champion to win a U.S. Senior Open.

Arnie's Army was heard from again in 1997, when it was disclosed he was suffering from prostate cancer. On the mend from surgery early that year, Palmer said, "I've got mail from people that is unbelievable. In some way I would like all the people to know how much I appreciate it." True to form, he was playing competitive golf two months later.

In 1961, at the Centenary Open Championship, the whole of the final day's play was cancelled when a storm came through on Thursday night and flattened every marquee in the tented village at Royal Birkdale. The dreadful mess was uncannily reminiscent of a World War I battlefield. But this time Palmer prevailed in a classic duel against the brilliant Welshman Dai Rees on the final day. At the start of it Rees led by a single stroke, but going to the final stanza Palmer had taken over the lead by that same slender margin with a 69 to Rees' 71.

Both men scored 72 that fateful afternoon, but it was Palmer who played the master stroke at the 15th hole with disaster staring him palpably in the face. A dogleg right of some 400 yards was made increasingly treacherous by a headwind of more than 30 m.p.h.

Palmer's drive found a vicious willow scrub literally a yard right of the fairway. Most mere mortals would have deemed the ball unplayable, since willow scrub has fierce thorns and an unbending disposition. Not Palmer. My good friend, the late Pat Ward-Thomas, and I watched in awe as Palmer literally removed the bush with his Herculean stroke, and the ball landed on the plateau green, a shot of about 150 yards. In due course a brass plaque was stationed where the bush had stood, in celebration of the great man's sheer strength, not to speak of his skill and charisma.

Another year later at Royal Troon in the 1962 Open Palmer almost lapped the field. His margin over runner-up Nagle was six shots. But Welshman Brian Huggett and America's Phil Rodgers, who tied for third, were a further seven strokes back. The inward half of Palmer's third round of 67 sent the huge crowd into something approaching delirium, so majestic was the King's stroke-making in what locals called "a stiff breeze!"

Now that he has decided his game will no longer be exposed to the public gazes - and most fans I know wouldn't care if the great man shot 100 or 200. The most extraordinary fact about Palmer's career is that he won his last major title in 1964. Years later he is still revered as "The King," and rightly so. Arnold Palmer invented pro golf as it exists today: The sports greatest ambassador died at 87.



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