Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and members of the recently victorious United States Ryder Cup team were among the attendees at a memorial service for Arnold Palmer in his home town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, last Tuesday. One hopes that every professional golfer in the world was there in spirit. They all owe their rich livelihoods to the great man, to ‘The King’ who had died the previous week, some two weeks after his 87th birthday.
Palmer won ‘only’ seven major championships, missed out on about the same number – frequently in heartbreaking and dramatic circumstances – and never completed his quest to win the USPGA Championship, the only major title to elude him. But his impact on his sport was immeasurable; greater than that of any individual golfer since. And, no, I am not overlooking Tiger Woods.
When Palmer won the 1960 US Open with a closing 65, making birdies on six of the first seven holes, it was the catalyst to talk of creating the modern Grand Slam to replace the traditional one (the Open and Amateur Championships of Britain and the United States) achieved by Bobby Jones 30 years previously. Palmer had already won the Masters that year and after winning at Cherry Hills he headed to St Andrews for the Open in great heart. Ken Nagle denied him by a shot. Fate also proved itself no respecter of a happy endings by forever denying him that PGA title.
In America, the emergence of colour television, the installation of the golf-mad President Eisenhower in the White House and finally the arrival of Palmer as a sporting icon gave a tremendous boost to a game that had with some difficulty survived the Great Depression and the Second World War. Arnold was box office. On this side of the Atlantic, he may have single-handedly saved the Open Championship. After the disappointment of 1960, he won in 1961 and 1962. Eminent American golfers had widely shunned the Open since the War. Sam Snead had only played in it three times, Ben Hogan just the once, but when Palmer bothered to make the transatlantic crossing, others took note and followed suit, Jack Nicklaus among them.
Theirs was a wonderful rivalry in many ways but it was also one that was over too soon after it had begun. The 1962 US Open was held at the Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh – metaphorically Palmer’s backyard – and his vociferous fans, ‘Annie’s Army’, attended their hero’s 18-hole playoff against the 22-year-0ld Nicklaus, then a rookie professional, parading signs that read such as ‘Hit It Here, Jack’. He didn’t. Instead he won the playoff to claim his first win as a pro, the first of his 18 major championships. Palmer had already won five by that stage. Nobody would believe he would only win two more – the Open Championship the following month and the Masters in 1964.
Palmer’s good looks, magnetic personality, winning smile and the miraculous manner in which he could conjure birdies from anywhere made him idolised. Remind you of anyone since? In 1976, Arnold was paired with Seve Ballesteros in the final round of the Trophée Lancôme. At one point, Ballesteros said: “Mr Palmer, you are driving the ball very straight today.” Seve insisted he said it in all innocence but Palmer, who probably thought he was being cheeky, not least because the Spaniard was in the process of overhauling his four-shot lead, replied: “Not as straight as you’re putting it, son.” After Ballesteros chipped in on the final hole to deprive Palmer of victory against him in the 1983 World Matchplay Championship, Arnold was philosophical. “I can’t complain. For years I used to do the same to people.”
And what he did made him a fortune. He was the first client of Mark McCormack, the Cleveland lawyer who effectively invented sports marketing. (When Gary Player and Nicklaus followed Palmer into McCormack’s IMG organisation, golf’s ‘Big 3’ was born.) Palmer remains the fifth-highest ever-earner from golf – he was third in 2011 alone, behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson! – even though his last major victory was the 1964 Masters and he hadn’t won on the PGA Tour since 1973. (He won both the Spanish Open and PGA Championship on the European Tour in 1975.) Companies of every kind loved him and the people adored him. His was the endorsement everybody craved.
Next year the Open will be at Royal Birkdale again. There is already a plaque on the course commemorating one of Palmer’s trademark extraordinary shots, performed on his way to victory in the 1961 championship. I’m sure the R&A are already planning how they and the golfing public should salute the King in Southport next summer.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen