Arnold Palmer, arguably the most popular and influential player in the history of golf, was memorialized on Oct. 4 near his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., after he died on Sunday, Sept. 25 at the age of 87 due to heart complications. The legendary player had been in failing health over the last two years, and he was awaiting cardiovascular surgery in Pittsburgh when he passed away.
A full house at St. Vincent Basilica, located just two miles from where Palmer learned the game from his father, Deacon, at Latrobe Country Club, gathered to remember the common man who would become known as golf's King and who led his own Arnie's Army of fans. Winner of seven major titles among 62 PGA Tour victories, Palmer was known for his go-for-broke style of play that helped popularize the game at the advent of the television age. But there was so much more to him, which is why past and current players and golf dignitaries from around the world crowded into the small church to pay their respects.
The 1993 Honoree of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide, Palmer not only became one of the game's greatest players, but he also went on to be a successful businessman, philanthropist, trailblazing advertising spokesman, golf course designer and acclaimed aviator. He also began hosting his own tournament at Bay Hill Club in Orlando in 1979, which in the last decade came to be known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Palmer, preceded in death by his first wife, Winnie, was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, a distinction he shares with longtime rival Jack Nicklaus, who was among the "elite brigade" who gathered for Palmer's service.
"Today, I am a proud member of Arnie's Army," an emotional Nicklaus said as he spoke at the service, one of several people chosen to eulogize the game's most iconic figure, joining the likes of CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem and fellow Hall of Fame golfer Annika Sorenstam. "I hurt like you hurt. You don't lose a friend of 60 years and don't feel an enormous loss."
Though Nicklaus and Palmer were fierce competitors -- their rivalry starting when Jack beat Arnie in a playoff in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont -- they never lost sight of their mutual respect and admiration for each other. For many years Palmer helped Nicklaus at the Memorial Tournament by serving as a member of the Captains Club.
But, of course, that was just one of the many things he did on behalf of the game.
"Arnold meant everything to golf. Are you kidding me?" Tiger Woods, the five-time Memorial winner said, upon hearing the news. "I mean, without his charisma, without his personality in conjunction with TV — it was just the perfect symbiotic growth. You finally had someone who had this charisma, and they're capturing it on TV for the very first time.
"Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold."
Palmer's defining moment, one that embedded the word "charge" into the minds of his adoring fans, came in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. Palmer had won the Masters two months earlier, with birdies on the final two holes to edge Ken Venturi by one shot. But Palmer began the final round of the Open seven strokes and 14 players behind Mike Souchak and was told that he had no chance of winning. But Palmer proceeded to drive the first green 346 yards away and made the first of four consecutive birdies. He added birdies on the sixth and seventh and shot a final-round 65 to complete the comeback victory by two strokes over Nicklaus, then an amateur.
In all, Palmer won eight times in 1960, the year he signed with pioneering sports agent Mark McCormack and quickly became a marketing giant for products ranging from golf equipment to jackets and slacks to automobile oil and rental cars. Palmer became the first professional golfer to earn $1 million for his career. Even into his 80s he was pulling in an estimated $20 million per year. It was because of his foray into the marketing world that athletes after him earned untold sums off the course or the field or the court.
"There's an old saying that there are no irreplaceable people," said Palmer's longtime friend and advisor Charlie Mechem, who for years has been the master of ceremonies at the Memorial Honoree Ceremony. "Whoever made that line didn't know Arnold Palmer. There will never be another."
The service was another reminder that Palmer was not the greatest golfer who ever lived, or even the best from his generation. He just had the greatest influence through television, through marketing and mostly through his common touch, his ability to connect with people be they CEOs, children or everyday people.
"He had this other thing," Finchem said. "It was the incredible ability to make you feel good — not just about him, but about yourself. I was amazed by how people reacted to him. He took energy from that and turned right around and gave it back."