NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Updated: Sunday, September 25, 2016, 11:28 PM
He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods, revolutionizing the game of golf with a loyal following of fans affectionately known as “Arnie’s Army.”
Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday at the age of 87, brought golf to the masses, becoming in the process one of the most famous athletes in the world, a leading pitchman who endorsed seemingly every product on the planet, from Pennzoil to an iced tea-lemonade concoction that bore his revered name.
Long before winning seven majors with a presence that earned him the nickname “The King,” Palmer learned the sport in his youth in Latrobe, Pa., where his father was a country club groundskeeper.
Palmer began playing golf at age 4 and driving the club’s tractor at 7.
Arnold Palmer poses for a portrait during a sponsors message video shoot for the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented By MasterCard at the Winnie Palmer Hospitalon February 27, 2015 in Orlando, FL.
(Chris Condon/US PGA TOUR)
He perfected his game as a student at Wake Forest University, which he attended on a golf scholarship, before dropping out for a three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Palmer turned pro in 1955 and won a tournament in his first year. Just three years later he won the coveted Masters, which he played for 50 straight years.
Palmer’s battles with fellow golfer Jack Nicklaus made for one of the biggest rivalries in the history of sports. But off the course, Nicklaus and Palmer forged a friendship that last more than 50 years.
Along with Gary Player, the men created the buzz surrounding modern golf, and they remained connected long after their playing days were over.
Palmer’s icon status was cemented in the 1960s, as televised sports were becoming a national obsession.
Back then, fans didn’t mind that he chain-smoked through 18 holes.
Six of Palmer’s seven majors were won between 1960 and 1964, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
“The King” also was instrumental in the success of the Senior PGA Tour, now the Champions Tour for players 50 years and older.
He became eligible in its first year and won 10 times on the circuit before retiring from tournament golf in October 2006.
Palmer, with an estimated net worth of $ 675 million, endeared himself to his fans by signing each and every autograph for them with perfect penmanship.
“What’s the point of signing something if the person can’t read it or later can’t even remember who it was?” he told an interviewer.
“I’m flattered by the fact that people want to talk to me or shake hands with me or get an autograph. I feel flattered that they want that. And I try to do all I can to accommodate.”
Arnold Palmer at the Masters in 2002.
Palmer was one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
He won the Masters in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964, the British Open in 1961 and 1962 and the U.S. Open in 1960, when he rallied from seven strokes down in the final round to beat an aging Ben Hogan and a young Nicklaus.
But Palmer was just as big off the course. In addition to the wide range of products he endorsed — Hertz, Cadillac, Ray-Ban and Wheaties — he oversaw a thriving course-design business and helped found The Golf Channel, the first cable network devoted to one sport.
Arnold Palmer reacts with a wince and a kick of his foot as his putt for a birdie on the eighth hole misses the cup by six inches giving him a par 4 in the final round of the $ 110,000 Cleveland Open Golf Championship in Cleveland, Ohio, July 1, 1963.
“There are two things that made golf appealing to the average man — Arnold Palmer and the invention of the mulligan,” comedian Bob Hope once said of his friend and the chance to replay a stroke.
Tributes began pouring in almost immediately.
“It’s hard to believe that Arnold has passed, and I’m deeply saddened by his loss. He meant so much to the game and to me personally,” Woods said. “I knew that I could always call him for advice, and I looked forward to seeing him at Bay Hill and the Masters. Arnold touched so many people. My kids were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, and his philanthropic work will be remembered along with his accomplishments in golf. It was an honor and privilege to have known Arnold, and I’m forever grateful for his friendship.”
Palmer, who was friends with President Dwight Eisenhower, and played golf with both Presidents Bush, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
His wife of 45 years, Winnie, died in November 1999 at 65 of ovarian cancer. He married Kathleen “Kit” Gawthrop in 2005. Survivors also include two daughters and a grandson, Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour.
With Christian Red and News Wire Services