Arnold Palmer, one of the leading sports figures of his generation and the golfer credited with expanding interest in his sport beyond the country club on his way to seven major championships, died in a hospital in Pittsburgh Sunday. He was 87.
He died of complications from heart problems after being admitted to the hospital Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
His last public appearance came at this year’s Masters tournament, where he joined the two golfers he was most commonly linked with during his career — Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — as honorary starters. Nicklaus and Player hit ceremonial tee shots, while Mr. Palmer, looking frail and gaunt, watched from a nearby seat.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when the game was starting to be televised and the sport needed a showman to help sell it, Mr. Palmer stepped up to the tee.
Golf found the perfect person. Mr. Palmer’s blue-collar upbringing, flair for the dramatic, and charisma appealed wildly to fans of the sport and of the spectacle. His go-for-broke approach on the course and grit were evident in both euphoric victories and soul-crushing defeats.
Before long, hordes of fans would follow him — Arnie’s Army, they became known — as he attacked the course.
His list of seven major titles doesn’t include the victory of which he was most proud: the 1954 US Amateur. Winning there sent him on a path toward professional golf, where he won 62 times on what would become the PGA Tour. His first victory came at the 1955 Canadian Open, while his final tour win was in 1973, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
In between, Mr. Palmer become one of the most successful and well-known sports figures in the United States, appearing on television talk shows, and starring in numerous commercials.
Golf, though, was his calling. And he owned a game to which people, eventually, could relate.
“Arnold in his prime really wasn’t a very good driver,” Nicklaus said. “He was long, but he hit it in the trees and I think that’s where his popularity came from, the recovery shots and the excitement, because he played golf like everybody else played.”
Only better, most of the time. They didn’t have a world ranking back then, but Mr. Palmer, along with Nicklaus and Player, became golf’s Big Three, taking turns winning golf’s most prestigious tournaments. In one nine-year stretch, from 1958-1966, one of the three won the Masters every year but one, with Mr. Palmer claiming four green jackets, in 1958, 1960, 1962, and 1964.
The 1958 Masters victory was his first major championship, but the one that best described Mr. Palmer was his lone US Open win, in 1960 at Cherry Hills Country Club outside Denver. Mr. Palmer, trailing by seven shots going into the final round, was lunching with a sportswriter and asked him what a score of 65 would do. “Wouldn’t help you much,” was the reply. Mr. Palmer stormed off.
Fueled by the dismissive comment, Mr. Palmer drove the green on the first hole — it was a 346-yard par-4 — and that led to an opening birdie. He shot that 65 and won by two strokes over Nicklaus.
At a time when many US professional golfers weren’t playing in the British Open — the cost of the trip could far exceed the prize money earned — Mr. Palmer breathed life into the oldest major championship by winning it twice, in 1961 and 1962. The PGA Championship was the only major he failed to win, an omission that denied him the career grand slam.
Mr. Palmer was born on Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb that remained his hometown. Mr. Palmer’s father, Deacon, was the professional (and greenskeeper) at Latrobe Country Club, giving the young boy an inside look at the game that would become his profession. Years later, Palmer would purchase the club, and on the property there remains a building that contains every letter written to him by his legendary army of fans.
“Any softness that I have, I got from my mother [Doris],” Mr. Palmer said. “My father, he was a tough guy, but boy did I love him.”
His parents stressed proper manners and etiquette, traits that Mr. Palmer committed to memory and will forever be known for. Many who encountered Mr. Palmer tell a similar tale: Despite a wide gap in status and fame, he gave anyone he was with his full attention, a gift of time and personal experience that spoke to his genuine approach and humility.
He expected it from others, too, especially in certain cases. He didn’t like hats worn indoors, and when a former US Open champion was caught verbally snapping at a volunteer during the PGA Tour event that Mr. Palmer hosted at his Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., the offender received a sternly worded talking-to.
Letters, though, were always Mr. Palmer’s staple. He took great pride in giving legible autographs and made a point of writing handwritten notes of thanks or congratulations for decades. Tournament winners often received them, an out-of-the-blue surprise that arrived in the mail, and would often become framed. In recent years, those became typed letters, still ending with that unmistakable signature.
Mr. Palmer had a number of connections to the Boston area. He nearly won the 1963 US Open at The Country Club, losing in a playoff to Julius Boros. He won the 1982 Marlborough Classic at Marlborough Country Club, one of his 10 victories on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit he is credited with helping create when he became old enough to play in 1980. Of the hundreds of commercials he appeared in as a pitchman for everything from Pennzoil to Hertz, one was filmed at Fenway Park, with Mr. Palmer launching shots from home plate.
Long after his playing days were over, Mr. Palmer remained a highly visible figure, starring in commercials well into his 80s and branching out with products, such as the drink he became known for and bears his name. Order an “Arnold Palmer” at almost any restaurant in the country and you’ll receive a cold beverage containing lemonade and iced tea, the percentage of which can vary (Mr. Palmer liked his with two-thirds iced tea, one-third lemonade).
Business success was almost as rampant as his tournament victories. Mr. Palmer became an accomplished golf course architect, and his popularity, even after he retired from competitive golf, meant that companies still wanted him to be a spokesperson, for which he was paid handsomely. In its 2016 ranking of golf’s top earners, Golf Digest had Mr. Palmer at No. 5 with $40 million, behind only Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy.
Perhaps nobody locally knew Mr. Palmer as well as Richard F. Connolly, or spent more time with him. Connolly became Mr. Palmer’s financial adviser in 1979, and his business has been the presenting sponsor of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund’s annual banquet, which has recognized honorees with the Francis Ouimet Award for lifelong contributions to golf since 1997. Mr. Palmer was the initial recipient.
“He’s not as good as the press he’s received. He’s better. He does things all the time that people aren’t aware of, raises millions and millions for charity, and it’s never ‘no.’ And when you’re with him, you always get his full attention,” Connolly told the Globe a few years ago. “The men loved him, and the women loved him. It was a gift that he had.”
Golf and people weren’t the only passions in Mr. Palmer’s life. He became a pilot early in his career and flew his own airplane for 55 years, guiding his final flight on Jan. 31, 2011, at the age of 81.
Mr. Palmer leaves his wife, Kit; two daughters; six grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; one brother; and two sisters. A grandson, Sam Saunders, is a member of the PGA Tour, still looking for his first victory. Mr. Palmer was married to his first wife, Winnie, from 1954 until her death in 1999.
Follow Michael Whitmer on Twitter @MichaelTWhitmer.