A King of the People

By Sam Belden 

Arnold Palmer racked up 62 PGA Tour wins and seven majors in a terrific career. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Arnold Palmer racked up 62 PGA Tour wins and seven majors in a terrific career. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

“In a sport that was high society, Arnold Palmer made it ‘High Noon.’”

These are the words of Vin Scully, one of Fordham’s most distinguished alumni and perhaps the single most venerated sports broadcaster in history. But even that sentence, which so effectively describes the impact that Arnold Palmer had on the game of golf, feels hollow now. For a man with a legacy like his, mere words just don’t seem like enough, yet they’re all I have to give in this space.

Palmer passed away in a Pittsburgh hospital on Sunday night. At the age of 87, we knew he was slowing down, but no one expected a bombshell like this. Even in his old age, he was one of the game’s most brilliant lights, delighting fans and players alike with his infectious smile and keen sense of humor.

The son of a groundskeeper hailing from Western Pennsylvania, Palmer played college golf at Wake Forest and served in the Coast Guard before joining the PGA Tour in 1955. When he picked up his first professional win at that year’s Canadian Open, no one could have guessed that it would be the first of 95.

Palmer quickly established himself as a cut above the rest. Not in a technical sense, of course — his signature helicopter finish would make any swing coach grimace, and his putting technique strayed far from the textbook. But the man won. He won and he won and he won. Palmer picked up 21 PGA Tour triumphs through his first six seasons, including his signature win at the 1960 U.S. Open. There, he torched Cherry Hills for a final round 65, pulling off a terrific comeback victory over future rival Jack Nicklaus.

Thanks to his winning ways and his equally winning personality, Palmer endeared himself to many a gallery. For years, he was the longest player on the PGA Tour, bar none. His booming drives and thrilling victories earned him legions of fans, whom he would gladly oblige with autographs and well-wishes. Rooting for Arnold Palmer, the first golf star of the television era, became a national phenomenon. Before there was the 12th man, there was Arnie’s Army.

Prior to Palmer’s arrival, golf was a sport for country clubbers and business associates. Almost single-handedly, Palmer opened it up to people from all walks of life. The level of excitement he brought to the game led city boys and farm boys alike to dream about Masters glory for the first time in their lives.

Even today, golf continues to struggle with making the game accessible to those who struggle financially, but Palmer was always an ally in the fight to spread golf to the masses. Even the most casual of modern sports fans recognize his name, even if it’s only from a beverage container.

I could write pages about Palmer’s titanic legacy, but with my space running out, I’ll leave you with this: go play. Call your friends, grab your clubs and head to your local course or driving range. There’s no better way to honor someone who brought the game of golf to so many people.


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