Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday, was golf’s first pro to win a million dollars – and changed the sport forever.
Palmer invaded a golf course like a guy jumping through a skylight cradling a German Luger. But his go-for-broke approach on the course was matched by an unfailing charisma off the course. Win or lose, usually he was the last guy signing autographs after the end of a tournament.
"Arnold transcended the game of golf," long-time on course rival and friend Jack Nicklaus said in a statement Sunday. "He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans.
"He was the king of our sport and always will be."
For those who never saw Palmer in his prime, playing the percentages was for someone else. He never lagged a putt or was reluctant to drive through a forest of trees in his life. With Palmer, it was all or nothing at all.
Yet when Palmer was on his game, there wasn’t a course he couldn’t bring to its knees or a 40-foot putt that he couldn’t make look like a six footer.
Overall Palmer won some 62 tournaments by going for the jugular, consistently smoothing out the rough with his confidence and inventing percentages that worked only for him. Basically he performed without a net, which was part of his charm.
He also ignored several of golf’s unbreakable laws, including the one that says you can’t store your best shots on coat hangers and then reach for them any time you need them. The truth is Arnold had an entire wardrobe of shots that he would bring out of the closet any time he needed them.
Although Palmer never intentionally gave away any of his secrets, two things he told Sports Illustrated in 1961, after winning Sportsman of the Year, in a lengthy interview are worth repeating.
“Some players are wonderful hitters of the ball, but they can’t figure out ways to get out of trouble,” Palmer said. “Yet 80 percent of the time there is a way out. You just have to know how to look for it.”
Later in the same interview he said: “Too many players learn a controlled swing first, then try to increase their distance and they can’t. As a result, a lot of players never hit the ball hard enough.”
Before Palmer came along, many of the game’s greatest names (Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan) were respected by the general public but not exactly loved. They were champions under glass; untouchables.
But Palmer was loved, by truck drivers and housewives. Especially by truck drivers who immediately recognized that here was a man they could walk up to and engage in conversation without a formal introduction.
He wore a shirttail that wouldn’t stay tucked and a personality that didn’t mind crowds or autograph seekers. Members of Arnie’s Army – and there were millions of them – simply enrolled themselves.
Palmer transformed how golf was perceived by the public, and introduced a nation to color television. "Palmer sold a million color TVs -- nobody wanted to watch him perform his magic in black-and-white, neither the man of the house, nor the lady," reported Golf.com.
Businessmen had nothing on Palmer. He was, in 1995, a co-founder of Golf Channel and in that capacity made an indelible mark on the game while making, over time, millions of dollars. Over the years, the range of his business interests is mindboggling, with an ownership interest in dry cleaners, car dealerships, hotels, a golf-club manufacturing business, among many other ventures. He was a prudent investor but in general much preferred to be paid as a spokesman for various products, from Pennzoil starting in the early 1960s to a blood-clotting drug in recent years that had him appearing in TV spots with the comedian Kevin Nealon. There were scores of other products in between. Palmer's stiffness as an actor added to his appeal and his credibility.
Palmer wrote more golf books (13) than Dan Jenkins, designed or remodeled more courses (350) than Pete Dye and sponsored more products than Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr. together. He drove that famous red tractor for Pennzoil for years, ran through airports with O.J. Simpson for Hertz and appeared in an Electronic Arts video golf game with Tiger Woods. A hundred other deals could be added to that list.
Life is always better for the professional athlete, too, if the media likes you, and with Palmer the feeling was mutual. On countless occasions after a round, Palmer would take the time to sit at a club bar with a golf writer and pay rapt attention to even the most routine questions.
Until Palmer joined the senior tour in 1980, it was just a kind of a quaint nostalgia circuit for golfers who remembered Burma Shave sign and 30-cent hamburgers. All of the prize money offered wouldn’t have bought you a home in Beverly Hills.
However, once Palmer came aboard the Champions Tour the financial rewards and the crowds soared into the millions. And Arnold, even in slow motion, still won by playing aggressively, not settling for a par when a bit of derring-do might yield a birdie.
Phil Elderkin, who won a National Headliners Award in 1975 for outstanding commentary on sports, is a former sports editor of the Monitor.