He was as popular throughout his career for his charisma as much as his remarkable ability, and the great Arnold Palmer was characteristically emotional over the weekend as he told his vast legion of fans around the world that he had played his last competitve round of golf at the grand old age of 77.
‘Arnie’ (pictured) was forced to withdraw with a back injury after four holes from the opening round of the Champions Tour’s Administaff Small Business Classic in Texas, and immediately addressed the media to confirm that he had indeed taken the decision to end his playing career after over fifty years as a professional.
“I have been doing this a long, long time and I think this is it,” said the tearful seven-time Major champion and golf’s first superstar.
“First of all, to stand out there and not make anything happen is very traumatic in my mind. When the people want to see a good shot and you know you can’t give them that shot – that’s when it’s time to stop. I’ll play some father-son events, some charity events and that’s about it. Right now I have no more thoughts about playing tournament golf.”
Palmer was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in September 1929 and, after serving in the US Coast Guards in the early 1950s, he turned professional shortly after winning the US Amateur Championship in 1954. He went on to win four Masters titles, one US Open and two Opens in a glittering and hugely significant career, with the most dominant phase of it coming in the years between 1960-63 – when he won 29 tournaments in four seasons. By the time he had won the final Major of his career, the 1964 Masters, the game of golf had changed beyond all recognition from the sport he entered on turning pro almost ten years earlier.
While he is not considered to be the greatest or most talented player of all time, it can be argued that he is the most important. His charisma and fearless approach to the game facilitated golf’s transition from a middle-class and inaccessible minority sport into one that was enjoyed by people all over the world and coveted by big-paying sponsors. All of today’s famous and highly rewarded players owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Shortly after winning his first Masters title in 1958 he embarked on a pioneering sports management partnership with the late Mark McCormack, whose own genius helped transform Palmer into one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. According to McCormack, Palmer possessed five key attributes that enabled him to market his client with such great success: good looks; his modest background, which made him a people’s champion; his affability; his daring style of play; and the fact that he was involved in numerous nail-biting finishes in early televised tournaments in the late 1950s. The partnership between the two, which also launched the World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth, was so successful that Palmer continued to earn millions of dollars in endorsements long after the prime of his pro career was over.
Another debt, often forgotten, is the one that British golf owes Palmer for his promotion of the Open Championship in his native United States. In the post-war years the Open was not a priority on the playing itineraries of the top American players (illustrated by the only rare forays to these shores by the likes of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead), but Palmer changed all that by being a regular visitor and promoter of golf’s oldest Major. His enthusiasm for the event and the respectful deference he showed towards the game’s oldest traditions were rewarded by consecutive Open titles in 1961 and 1962 and unswerving popularity in the UK and Ireland.
Other achievements include the founding of the Golf Channel and the building of the first golf course in China, a project he was entrusted with in 1971 during a time of high tension between the US and Chinese governments – this is a fine example of the high regard in which he was held throughout the world, regardless of race, religion or, in this case, political ideology. He will continue to do his widespread charity work and we have not seen the last of him around the game’s biggest events, which he stated that he will continue to attend as a enthusiatic observer, but there is no doubt that the sport will sorely miss such a collossal figure – a winner of a total of 62 events on the USPGA Tour, but, more importantly, a true champion of twentieth century sport.