Arnold Palmer truly was The King
There have been a handful of transcendent athletes over the past century, men and women who've made their mark in sport, entertainment and/or culture. There were better golfers and more important social figures. But there was never mistaking that there could only be one King and that was Arnold Palmer.
The 87-year-old golfer died Sunday, leaving behind one of the great legacies and personal empires that golf, or sports, has ever seen.
It can be argued that Arnold Palmer changed his sport perhaps more than any athlete has changed theirs. Golf had a deservingly stoic and stuffy reputation that'd been mocked for years until Arnie came along, with his dashing good looks and a power game the sport had never seen. With that distinctive swing, a swashbuckling style and unprecedented desire to hit the cover off every drive he ever stood over, Palmer exuded cool, like Don Draper in spikes. He was the successor to Hogan and the predecessor to Nicklaus, bridging the gap between old and new, even though no one realized the latter at first. When Nicklaus was usurping Palmer atop the game, it was Palmer who still held onto his “Army” of fans, the legion who would follow him around the course, including at the 1960 U.S. Open, when Palmer famously beat them both for perhaps his greatest title. Jack was the outsider – a little chubby and a bit square. He was the guy you wanted to golf like. Palmer was the guy you wanted to be.
He won 62 times on Tour, won a U.S. Amateur title and seven majors. He was a Ryder Cup hero, winning 22 matches in his career, the most among Americans. The 2016 edition starts in five days, making the timing of Palmer's passing all the more touching.
One doesn't just become a king because he's great at one thing. Palmer was great at a lot of things, most notably in becoming the first modern-day pitchman (with help from agent Mark McCormack) and setting the standard for post-athletic success.
In 2014, when he was 85 years old and hadn't been competitive in 40 years, he made $40 million, according to Forbes. (Only Michael Jordan made more.) Palmer pitched for countless companies during his career and well after. He had a lucrative golf course design firm (the courses were exactly as you'd expect – tough and penalizing but rewarding players for successful risk-taking), a successful international store with hundreds of locations and licensed his name for his famous iced tea and lemonade concoction to AriZona Beverages, bringing in eight figures annually from the deal. He had his pilot's license (which enabled him to fly himself to tournaments) and has a dorm named for him at his alma mater, Wake Forest, as well as a statue that sits outside the golf complex where college stars such as U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson play on the Arnold Palmer Scholarship. His philanthropy will be his greatest legacy, with his Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation supporting a children's hospital, a hospital for women and babies that sees 15,000 newborns leave through its doors every year and countless charities.
The golf almost feels frivolous after that but it's the golf and the golfer, of course, that created it all. Palmer's seven majors are tied for seventh in history and fifth in the modern era that he ushered in with his first major win in 1958. But, surprisingly, his Grand Slam greatness was amazingly compact. Palmer would win his final major in 1964, just six years after his first. No other golfer with more than five Slams has ever had them all come in such a short time span. Jack Nicklaus, for instance, had 34 years in between his first and last major. Gary Player had 19. Tom Watson is the best comparison, winning eight majors in eight seasons.
He was 34 that year but his career was hardly over – there would be 17 more individual titles in his career (but only 12 top-10 finishes in majors). That was hardly the point. He continued to play, finishing his U.S. Open career in 1994, his Masters career in 2004 and serving as ceremonial starter until this year, when health prevented him from hitting the ceremonial tee shot. (He still showed up, resplendent in his green jacket.) Palmer remained one of the world's most famous athletes up until his death, staying in the public eye for 60 years after his prime. Yet even though Arnold Palmer the elder is how most will remember him, Palmer also had a bit of James Dean in him – a beyond-cool image that was frozen in youth.
Long live The King.