Born on September 10, 1929, Arnold Palmer chose to play professional golf rather than make a career in the Coast Guard or keep selling paint in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Fortunately for those in “Arnie’s Army” — one of the biggest informal golf fan clubs ever — Palmer elected to take on the PGA Tour. With seven majors and 62 total wins, “The King” is one of the game’s greats.
Arnold Palmer’s accomplishments on the course
When Palmer started out in 1955, golf pros didn’t make the kind of money they do today. Many still had to support themselves with a course job when the tour wasn’t playing. At the 1958 Masters, Palmer’s first major win, he brought home a paycheck of $11,250 — the first five-figure winner’s check in a pro golf event.
The modern-day Grand Slam of golf, which includes the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, was solidified by Palmer, who went to the British Open despite the fact that few American pros did so. He helped popularize The Masters by winning four Green Jackets, the second most until Tiger Woods won a fifth in his 2019 comeback. Palmer also had one U.S. Open victory in 1960 and two British Open wins. Unfortunately, “The King” never secured a PGA Championship, despite being runner-up three times.
Of course, Palmer won non-major tournaments, too. In the early ’60s, he took home 20 victories in four years and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. He also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest average score on the PGA Tour four times and played on six Ryder Cup teams. Palmer helped establish the Senior Tour, now the Champions Tour. His popularity encouraged golf fans to tune in as he won five senior majors and 10 events.
Palmer’s winning strategy off the course
Part of Palmer’s success was a lucky accident; he happened to be an outgoing, telegenic player just as televised sports became popular. The golfer’s dramatic style meant that people watched no matter how he played.
What’s more, people wanted to be like Palmer. In the early days of sports marketing, the golfer teamed up with Mark McCormack to become a charismatic corporate spokesperson who sold golf equipment, clothes, cars, watches, non-alcoholic drinks (including the famous lemonade-iced tea blend) and even motor oil. Palmer helped start The Golf Channel in 1995 and grow it into a multi-million dollar media property.
In all, Palmer earned nearly $1.35 billion in endorsements, sponsorships and things like course design fees. The only athletes to overtake him in all-time earnings are Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.
A man of the people
One of Arnold Palmer’s most endearing traits was his willingness to greet everyone, sign autographs, and shake hands. Pros and fans respected him, which caused the golfer to transcend his play. More than 20 years after his last win on Tour, Palmer’s final walk down the 18th at the U.S. Open at Oakmont drew a standing ovation that remains one of the most emotional farewells in sports.
Palmer passed away on September 25, 2016, at the age of 87. “Arnie’s Army” had grown from the small band of rowdy servicemen at the 1958 Masters to every golf fan. Palmer’s legacy, both on and off the course, is unlikely to be matched in the modern day.