Arnold Palmer was one of the most charismatic and popular golfers to grace the game. His impact in the early days of golf on television dramatically raised the profile of the sport, and with it, the money and opportunities available to pro golfers.
Palmer was the son of a greenskeeper, and his father started him early in the game. As a teen, Palmer won five West Penn Amateur Championships. He played collegiately at Wake Forest, but gave up the game for several years when he joined the Coast Guard.
He returned to golf in the early 1950s, and eventually won the 1954 U.S. Amateur. He turned pro five months later.
Palmer led the PGA Tour in wins with four in 1957, then exploded in 1958 with his first major, the Masters Tournament. Palmer’s swashbuckling, go-for-broke style, combined with an aggressive, unorthodox swing, plus movie-star looks and charisma, immediately made him a star.
He didn’t disappoint, dominating the PGA Tour into the early 1960s. In 1960, he won eight times including the Masters and U.S. Open. At the Open, he made up seven strokes in the final round to win. In 1962, he had another eight wins, including the Masters and British Open.
From 1957 to 1963, Palmer led the Tour in wins five times and money four times. He won four scoring titles, the last in 1967. Palmer won seven majors, all of them from 1958 to 1964, and was the first 4-time winner of the Masters.
His last big year on the PGA Tour was 1971, when he won four times. The last of his 62 PGA Tour wins came in 1973, but his popularity never waned. It surged again in 1980 when Palmer joined the Champions Tour, and once again helped popularize a golf tour. One can argue that the Champions Tour would not have enjoyed its early success – might have even have grown into a full-fledged tour – had its birth not coincided with Palmer hitting his 50s, and thus being able to play senior events.
Off the course, Palmer built a business empire that included golf academies, tournament and course management companies, equipment companies, clothing lines and more. He co-founded The Golf Channel. Palmer’s endorsement deals alone kept him one of sport’s annual richest athletes into his 80s.
He remained a prominent figure and one of the most popular figures in golf until his death at age 87 on September 25, 2016, from complications due to heart disease. In his post-playing days, Palmer captained the Presidents Cup, ran his own PGA Tour event, was in demand as a product endorser, launched a wine label and lent his name to the Arizona Iced Tea beverage brand for Palmer-branded teas; he gave frequent interviews, played in the Masters Par-3 Contest and hit the opening drive at The Masters; and, in general, was as well-known to young golfers who never saw him play as to those who remembered his glory years.