The King is dead: Latrobe legend Arnold Palmer passes away at 87

Arnold Palmer passed away Sunday in Pittsburgh, a city he loved his entire life.

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer


Updated 10:27 a.m. Sept. 26

No one could tell a story like Arnold Palmer.

His personal website sums up the golfing legend in a way that made the Latrobe, Pa native seem adequately larger-than-life.

“Arnold Palmer is many things to many people,” the site states. “World-famous golf immortal and sportsman, highly successful business executive, prominent advertising spokesman, skilled aviator, talented golf course designer and consultant, devoted family patriarch and a man with a down-to-earth common touch…”

Devoted family patriarch and a man with a down-to-earth common touch: There is no truer way to describe Palmer, an absolute icon, who passed away Sunday, just two weeks after his 87th birthday.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac reported that Palmer died at UPMC Shadyside, where he was to have heart surgery Monday. He was admitted to UPMC Presbyterian on Thursday.

Palmer learned the game of golf from his father, who was a greenskeeper in Latrobe when Arnie was a boy. After attending Wake Forest, he joined the United States Coast Guard in his early 20s, and following three years serving the country, Palmer returned to college, and to golf, and won the 1954 U.S. Amateur, leading him to turn pro.

Palmer won the first of his 62 PGA tour victories in 1955, then took his first major three years later, in 1958, when he won his first of four Masters.  Palmer’s success on the tour, coupled with his movie-star looks and gregarious personality, made him an icon in the game and a superstar in modern American sports.

Palmer has been credited with the success of golf on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Golf would not be what it is today without the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, but without Arnie, neither Tiger nor Phil — or any of the greats over the last 50 years — may have turned to golf. His major-championship battles with Jack Nicklaus produced a rivalry all others are measured by in golf, or any sport, to this very day.

In all, Arnie won seven major championships: four Masters (1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964), the 1960 U.S. Open and the 1961 and 1962 Open Championship. He finished in the top five at the Masters nine times, the U.S. Open 10 times, the British Open three times and the PGA — the only major he never won — four times, including three second-place finishes.

Golf: The Masters-First Round
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Palmer transcended the golf world, though. An icon long past his playing days, Palmer was a savvy businessman and amazing pitchman for a host of international brands. Golf marketing, just like the game itself, wouldn’t be the multi-billion dollar industry it has become were it not for Arnie.

His list of achievements is pages long, and that doesn’t even including those he earned for feats on the golf course. He was Pittsburgh’s “Dapper Dan Man of the Year” in 1960. He was named a Distinguished Pennsylvanian in 1980. He won the Arthur J. Rooney Award in Pittsburgh in 1977, all things listed higher on his achievements than the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he won in 2004, or the Portugal Order of Merit, which he was given in 2005.

Palmer was given nine honorary degrees in his life and was the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade for the 1960s. Those seem like footnotes in a life as rich and successful as his.

His fans were called Arnie’s Army, which, as his website tells it, started out as an actual group of soldiers at the Masters.

Many people don’t realize that the Masters was not a sellout in those early years. Anybody with five dollars could walk up to the gates and buy a ticket for the day. Elementary school teachers had boxes of tickets on their desks with signs reading, “Masters Tickets: Please Help Support Our Town.” [Augusta National co-founder] Cliff [Roberts] wanted as large a gallery as he could get that year since the Masters was being televised for the second time, so he gave free passes to any soldier who showed up in uniform.

A lot of the soldiers did not necessarily know a lot about golf, but when they found out that I was defending champion they joined my gallery. That prompted one of the GIs working a back-nine scoreboard to announce the arrival of “Arnie’s Army,” which is what it looked like.  I can’t remember another time, other than my stint in the Coast Guard, when so many uniformed soldiers surrounded me. A year later, when I won my second Masters title, I thanked the “army” of supporters who came out to follow me.

Johnny Hendricks, a reporter from The Augusta Chronicle, picked up on the phrase and ran the headline “Arnie’s Army” for the first time. Boy, did it ever stick! Before I finished my playing career I think every newspaper, magazine, or television station that covered golf used the phrase at least once.

To this generation, Palmer may be most known for (or, perhaps as) a drink.

Half iced tea and half lemonade, since the 1960s, has been dubbed ‘The Arnold Palmer.’ The story goes that Palmer was in Palm Springs designing a golf course and during lunch one day he ordered the concoction. A woman at a nearby table overheard him and asked for one herself, saying, “I’ll have that Arnold Palmer drink.”

The rest is marketing history. In 2001, Arizona beverage company partnered with Palmer to put his drink in cans and more than 400 million are produced each year.

For the next few days, surely, sales will go up.

Palmer was a true sporting icon, a Western Pennsylvania legend, a generous philanthropist and, through it all, a really, really swell guy. Everyone in sports — heck, just about everyone, everywhere — loved Arnie. His passing leaves a hole in us, though thankfully, not one nearly as big as his heart.

PGA: The 144th Open Championship-Practice Round
Ian Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports