Arnold Palmer, the champion golfer whose full-bore style of play, dramatic tournament victories and magnetic personality inspired an American golf boom, attracted a following known as Arnie’s Army and made him one of the most popular athletes in the world, has died, a close friend said on Sunday, requesting anonymity to allow the family to make the statement. Palmer was 87.
From 1958 through 1964, Palmer was the charismatic face of professional golf and one of its dominant players. In those seven seasons, he won seven major titles: four Masters, one United States Open and two British Opens. With 62 victories on the PGA Tour, he ranks fifth, behind Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. He won 93 tournaments worldwide, including the 1954 United States Amateur.
But it was more than his scoring and shotmaking that captivated the sports world. It was how he played. He did not so much navigate a course as attack it. If his swing was not classic, it was ferocious: He seemed to throw all 185 pounds of his muscular 5-foot-10 body at the ball. If he did not win, he at least lost with flair.
Handsome and charming, his sandy hair falling across his forehead, his shirttail flapping, a cigarette sometimes dangling from his lips, Palmer would stride down a fairway acknowledging his “army” of fans with a sunny smile and a raised club, “like Sir Lancelot amid the multitude in Camelot,” Ira Berkow wrote in The New York Times.
And the television cameras followed along. As Woods would do more than 30 years later, Palmer, a son of a golf pro at Latrobe Country Club in the steel town of Latrobe, Pa., almost single-handedly stimulated TV coverage of golf, widening the game’s popularity among a postwar generation of World War II veterans enjoying economic boom times and a sprawling green suburbia.
His celebrated rivalry with Nicklaus and another champion, the South African Gary Player — they became known as the Big Three — only added to Palmer’s appeal, and more often than not, he, not the others, had the galleries on his side.
“Arnold popularized the game,” Nicklaus said. “He gave it a shot in the arm when the game needed it.”