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Masters legend Arnold Palmer dies

September 25, 2016 - 8:52 pm
By John Boyette |

Arnold Palmer, who won the Masters Tournament four times and helped bring golf to the masses, died Sunday night, according to multiple media reports. He was 87.

Known as the “King,” Palmer won 62 PGA Tour events before evolving into a successful businessman and golf’s elder statesman. His go-for-broke style – hitching up his pants and unorthodox swing – endeared him to the public and helped make golf a sport for the common man.

In a span of more than six decades at the Masters, Palmer seemingly did it all. He won four times in a seven-year span from 1958-64. He became the first winner invited to join Augusta National Golf Club as a regular member, and he revived the honorary starter tradition in 2007 after it had gone dormant.

Palmer established a Masters record with 50 consecutive starts from 1955-2004. He won tournaments all over the world, but Palmer was most closely associated with Augusta National and the Masters.

“When I walked on that hallowed ground, if you want to call it that, it was pretty special,” Palmer once said during a Golf Channel interview about Augusta National. “It was a privilege. And, of course, I think there is something to be said for the fact that America gives you a chance to earn those privileges.”

Health issues kept Palmer from participating in the Par-3 Contest the past two years, and Palmer gave up his duties as an honorary starter at the opening ceremony this spring. He still made an emotion-filled appearance alongside fellow Big Three members Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Palmer’s rise to the top of the golf world was hardly unique, but he never forgot his humble roots. He was born in Latrobe, Pa., in 1929 and his father, Deacon, was a club professional. The elder Palmer taught his young son the game, and he excelled.

He earned a college scholarship to Wake Forest, but he dropped out after a close friend and teammate was killed in an accident. Palmer joined the U.S. Coast Guard and took a hiatus from the game.

In 1954, he returned to national prominence by winning the U.S. Amateur and earning his first Masters invitation.

He quickly found success as a professional, and Palmer’s rugged good looks and his charisma were a perfect match for an evolving medium in the 1950s: television.

Up-and-coming CBS producer Frank Chirkinian would supply the innovations that would make the telecasts more enjoyable, and Palmer would supply the electricity that made golf must-see TV.

Chirkinian, who worked on Masters telecasts for nearly 40 years, remembered the first time he saw Palmer on television at the Masters. It was in 1959.

“Here comes Arnold, at the brow of the hill on 15, and this is my first experience with Arnold,” Chirkinian said. “And you know, the camera either loves you or hates you. The camera fell in love with him, standing there next to his caddie, hitching his trousers, wrinkling his nose, flipping a cigarette to the ground. He hitched his trousers again and grabbed a club from his caddie. And he hits it on the green.

“I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, who is this guy?’ He absolutely fired up the screen. It was quite obvious this was the star. We followed him all the way.”

Palmer finished third that year as Art Wall Jr. birdied five of the final six holes to win. But in Chirkinian’s mind, a star was born.

“It was electrifying. He was just magic,” he said.

His PGA Tour bio credits him with 62 victories on the PGA Tour, 10 on the Champions Tour and 11 international victories, but Palmer is remembered most for his seven victories in major championships.

He was at his best in Augusta, where he won the Masters four times between 1958 and 1964 and was so popular that “Arnie’s Army” followed his every move.

He first won at Augusta National in 1958 thanks to a controversial ruling that went his way and a timely eagle on the 13th hole. He later said it was one of the most important victories in his career.

“It put me in a position to feel a little more confident in my game. To then go on and win it three more times was sort of icing on the cake,” he said. “That was my first major objective - to win the Masters.”

In 1960, Palmer won his second green jacket, at the expense of Ken Venturi. The California pro held the clubhouse lead, and Palmer trailed by one with two holes to play.

Palmer drove safely but hit an indifferent approach to the 17th green. Facing a putt of nearly 30 feet, Palmer’s ball crept toward the hole, teetered on the edge and fell in for a birdie.

On the 18th, Palmer lashed a big drive around the corner that left him just a 6-iron away. He played a crisp shot that landed near the hole and stopped six feet left of the pin. With a national television audience watching, Palmer calmly rolled in the birdie putt to become the 1960 Masters champion.

Two months later, Palmer traveled to Denver to play in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. Palmer struggled for 54 holes, and his 215 total left him seven shots behind Mike Souchak.

Grabbing a quick lunch after his morning round, Palmer encountered his old friend, Bob Drum, the golf writer for the Pittsburgh Press.

As Dan Jenkins wrote in his book Fairways and Greens, Drum’s words inspired Palmer to go out and win the U.S. Open that afternoon:

“If I drive the green and get a birdie or an eagle, I might shoot 65,” Palmer said. “What’ll that do?”

“Nothing,” Drum replied. “You’re too far back.”

Palmer did drive the green at the first hole, and he birdied six of the first seven holes. He would go on to win by two shots over Jack Nicklaus, who was a 20-year-old amateur.

With victories in the first two majors, Palmer drew the attention of the sports world. The British Open, the game’s oldest major championship, had been spurned by most American pros for years. But with a possible Grand Slam in sight, Palmer made the trip to St. Andrews.

He made a game effort of it, but fell short by one stroke to Kel Nagle. The next two years, Palmer would win the British Open and receive credit for rekindling American interest in the event.

Palmer almost became the first man to win back-to-back Masters in 1961, but a poor bunker shot led to a double-bogey six on the final hole and South Africa’s Gary Player became the tournament’s first international champion.

Palmer shrugged off that disappointment the next spring.

He fired three consecutive subpar rounds to start the 1962 Masters, but he had to rely on some late-round magic (birdies at Nos. 16 and 17) to force the tournament’s first three-man playoff.

In the Monday playoff, Palmer made five birdies on the incoming nine to win easily over Player and Dow Finsterwald.

“Maybe it helped me that everybody kept asking me how I made six at the last hole last year,” Palmer told reporters.

Palmer played some of the best golf of his career at the 1964 Masters. His six-shot margin of victory was the second best in tournament history, as was his 276 total.

Palmer remembers that tournament for a different reason. He was trying to quit smoking, something he gave up for good later on.

“That was the year there was a lot of question about my game,” Palmer said. “The press was on me a little bit about quitting smoking. They thought it was (detrimental). I probably played the best Masters I ever played.”

With his victory, Palmer became the first four-time Masters winner.

No one could have predicted it, but that would be Palmer’s final victory in a major championship. He never won the PGA Championship to complete the career Grand Slam.

He would go on to challenge in the majors for another decade, but his last PGA Tour win came in the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic.

Palmer was the cornerstone of the “Big Three” with rivals Nicklaus and Player. The three were close friends, and under the guidance of agent Mark McCormack they each expanded their influence beyond the golf course. While Palmer was the first golfer to surpass $1 million in career earnings, he made far more than that from endorsements and business deals.

Forbes’ ranking of highest-paid retired athletes listed Palmer as third with earnings of $42 million in 2014. Beyond designing golf courses and endorsing golf-related products, he was known for popularizing his own drink (the “Arnold Palmer” is half lemonade, half sweet tea) and for co-founding The Golf Channel, a 24-hour network devoted to the game.

Despite those off-course successes, Palmer was devoted to playing the game as much as possible.

He would tee it up every chance he got and loved the “needling” and badgering that are a part of the daily games at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, the course he owns in Orlando, Fla.

Not even surgery for prostate cancer in 1997 could keep Palmer away from Augusta, and he continued to play in PGA Tour events and at the Masters well beyond his prime. His last Masters appearance as a competitor came in 2004.

Ovations from his adoring fans and well-struck shots motivated him.

“The people and those things are the reason I played as long as I have,” Palmer once said after playing in his PGA Tour event at Bay Hill. “Without the thoughts that they give me and to continue to tell me that they want me to play, I wouldn’t be here now. It’s nice, and it’s been nice through the years.”

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