Shakespeare wrote: “All the world’s a stage.” That may be so, but some make their entrance at precisely the right moment in history’s drama. Such is the case with legendary golfer Arnold Palmer. Counted among the greatest golfers of all time, Palmer made his debut during the rise of the television age, making him a household name, setting off a boom in golf, and establishing him as the greatest golfer to hail from Western Pennsylvania.
Arnold Daniel Palmer was born on September 10, 1929, in Latrobe. His father Milfred (Deacon) Palmer was the head professional and groundskeeper at Latrobe Country Club. When Arnold was four, his father gave him a set of cut-down clubs, and when he was 11, he became a caddy at Latrobe Country Club and was soon beating the older caddies. He attended Latrobe High School and was a two-time Pennsylvania high school champion. By the time he was 17, he had won the first of his five West Penn Amateur Championships, and was competing in national junior championships.
His success on the links landed him a scholarship to Wake Forest University, where he became the premier golfer on the university’s team, winning three Atlantic Coast Conference Championships during his collegiate career. However, a tragedy nearly compelled Palmer to hang up his golf bag. In 1950, his close friend and teammate, Bud Worsham, was killed in a car accident. Palmer was so grief stricken that he left college during his senior year and entered the Coast Guard, taking a three-year hiatus from competition. While stationed in Cleveland, he picked up the clubs again and, after his discharge, he worked for a time as a salesman and played amateur golf. Palmer then briefly returned to Wake Forest where he won the 1954 U.S. Amateur title.
It was also during this time in Palmer’s career that he met Winifred Walzer during a tournament in eastern Pennsylvania. They married in the fall of 1954, just after Palmer had turned pro. Palmer wasn’t an overnight sensation on the course. His climb to the top was gradual. When he emerged as the winner of the 1958 Masters Tournament, his ascendance in the golf universe collided with the emergence of television, setting off an interest in him, and in golf in general, that had never been seen before. Certainly, legends like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead were well-known and revered, but until the advent of television, very few had ever seen them play. With the dawn of the television age, Palmer, with his athletic good looks, affable personality, and amazing talent brought golf into millions of American homes, earning him the title “The King,” and a following of thousands of fans that became known as “Arnie’s Army.”
In 1960, Palmer won both The Masters and the U.S. Open, and during the period from 1960-1964, he captured 29 titles. The only major tournament he failed to win was the PGA Championship; he finished second three times in the PGA. Palmer was named “Athlete of the Decade” for the 1960s in an Associated Press poll, and in total, he amassed 92 national and international championships during his storied career.
Palmer parlayed his prowess on the course into a successful business career. He was the first to sign with Mark McCormack, who would soon become a legend in his own right. McCormack was the agent who founded IMG, the powerhouse agency that would grow to also represent Chris Evert, Joe Montana, and Tiger Woods. Under McCormack’s tutelage and employing his own business acumen, Palmer developed and established Arnold Palmer Enterprises, which, in addition to investing in automobile and aviation companies, has partnered with nearly a dozen other businesses, endorsing such brands as Rolex and the Golf Channel. He also is a licensee for products all over the world that bear his brand, including the iconic Arnold Palmer, the half lemonade, half iced tea beverage.
The Arnold Palmer Design Company creates signature golf courses, and to date, has opened approximately 300 courses worldwide. Palmer also owns the Bay Hill Club & Lodge located in Orlando, Florida, and Latrobe Country Club, where Palmer’s career all started. Each year, Palmer hosts the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. His net worth is estimated at $675 million.
Next to his family and golf, Palmer’s passion is flying, and he began to take flying lessons in the late 1950s. When he first went on tour, he and Winnie drove from tournament to tournament, which he found exhausting. A solution to reducing his hours on the road was to learn how to fly, and over the decades, Palmer has continued to hone his aviation skills, logging more than 18,000 hours in the sky. It is only fitting then that in 1999, the Westmoreland County Airport was renamed as the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
Palmer is also known for his philanthropy. After 45 yeas of marriage, the birth of two daughters, Peggy and Amy, six grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren, Palmer’s wife Winnie died from cancer in 1999. Palmer also battled prostate cancer in 1997. In response, he established Arnold Palmer Charities, which includes: the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Central Florida; the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, also in Orlando; the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California; the Arnold Palmer Pavilion, a cancer center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania; The Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania; and Arnie’s Army Battles Prostate Cancer, which raises funds for prostate cancer research. In 2005 in a private ceremony in Hawaii, Palmer wed his second wife, Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop.
Palmer’s awards, trophies, and honors for his golf career, aviation skill, and charitable work are nearly too numerous to count, among them The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 2004 from President George W. Bush, and the Congressional Gold Medal, passed by Congress and signed by President Barak Obama in 2009.
With all his success on and off the course, Palmer is still a Western Pennsylvanian at heart. He spends the warmer months in Latrobe, and the colder ones in either Florida or California. Since his emergence on the golf scene in the late 1950s, Palmer’s popularity has never flagged, and even in his 80s, many still consider themselves members of Arnie’s Army, a reflection of his being a champion on the course and in life as well.
Arnold Palmer died in Pittsburgh on September 26, 2016.