A kid leaves home with a golf club and conquers the world. That’s the story of Arnold Palmer, who rose from small-town, working-class respectability to global superstardom. When Palmer died last week at 87, President Obama described him as “the American Dream come to life,” echoing a multitude of other tributes to the golfer known as The King. Palmer said on many occasions that he never “basked” in that nickname; he was always down-to-earth, a regular guy, a small-d democrat, a champion of the people who became the catalyst for a boom in the popularity of golf, taking the game out of private clubs and opening it up for millions of new players.
From the beginning, he was seen as a hero with a symbolic role in golf and in American popular culture, a larger-than-life athlete whose brand made him colossally rich but who always remained the hometown boy whom everyone could be proud of. One of the most-repeated truisms in golf—it’s not how but how many—did not apply to Palmer. Though he won 92 professional titles, the number—the how many—didn’t matter. What did matter, what made him such a beloved figure, was the how.
When Palmer started winning tournaments in the late 1950s, I was just learning to play golf on a scruffy nine-hole course in a town where golf was less popular than coon hunting. In my fantasies, I was the second coming of Palmer, who made golf look exciting and very, very cool. He stepped onto the first tee, one golf writer said, like a boxer entering a ring. In his glory days, he had the physique of a boxer, too, with Popeye forearms and blacksmith hands. He was handsome and charismatic, the guy women wanted to date and men wanted to be, and his emotions were writ large on his face and in his body language. Before playing a shot, he’d take a last, long drag on his L&M cigarette, and then, flicking the cigarette to the grass, his look flashed a message of damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead. At the finish of his powerful, corkscrew swing, he peered anxiously at the flight of his shot. Marching down the fairway with his fans, known as Arnie’s Army, racing along behind him, his default expression was mischievous glee. He clearly loved the glory.
And the camera loved him. Before Palmer, the networks hadn’t been able to figure out how to bring any drama to their dull, black-and-white telecasts. Palmer made their job a lot easier. The first time that Frank Chirkinian, the producer of the Masters telecasts, saw Palmer, he realized that he “absolutely fired up the screen. It was quite obvious that this guy was the star.”
In 1963, he became the first golfer to make $100,000 in prize money in a single season—a very big deal. Back then, an athletic career didn’t automatically make you a millionaire—but Palmer began to demonstrate how an athlete could take his success to the bank. As a familiar TV presence, he became not just a golfer but also a celebrity. He was a friend of President Eisenhower, a star who piloted his own plane. His name became a brand that brought him a reported net worth of $675 million. Palmer’s fans were able to track his upward trajectory in TV ads that showed him driving a Cadillac, sporting a Rolex, or vacationing in Hawaii in luxury with his wife, Winnie. Today, on the shelves of convenience stores around the world, his face is still on display on tall cans of what has to be the ultimate iconic product: a drink that bears his name.
He wasn’t a polished pitchman. The slight awkwardness of his delivery only added to his sense of honesty and trustworthiness. This wasn’t an actor trying to sell you something; this was Arnold Palmer, the guy next door. The genius of his brand was to put a spotlight on his authenticity. In the series of ads he made for Pennzoil, his image was fixed in the public mind. In the 1981 version of the Pennzoil ad, Palmer sits down on an old red tractor at the golf course in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the hometown he never outgrew. A sprinkler is running, birds are chirping, and the tractor fires up with a deep-throated roar the instant Palmer touches the starter button. Palmer says, “You know, this old tractor and I are a lot alike … we’re both still running.”
The ad associates Palmer with hometown nostalgia, humility, innocence, and reliability. That was the brand, and it fit the man like a glove. He bought the golf course in Latrobe where he learned the game, not as the privileged kid of a member but as the son of the groundskeeper, Deacon Palmer. In his autobiography, A Golfer’s Life, Arnold has a lot to say about the men in the Palmer family and especially about his father, who lived by principles he tried to instill in his son. Honesty, integrity, respect for others, self-reliance, fairness, courtesy, hard work—these values added up to a code of behavior that was not open to discussion.
The same fundamental virtues applied on and off the course. For the non-golfer, it might be hard to believe that the game has moral underpinnings, but Palmer never doubted it. Without gushing or preaching, without turning into a scold or an old fogey, without ever losing his aura of coolness, Palmer became the living embodiment of what might be called aspirational golf, the ideal game that confers a kind of grace and worthiness upon those who play it in the right spirit. Somehow, the goodness of the game brought out the goodness of those who played it. Golfers looked to Jack Nicklaus for swing tips, but they turned to Arnie for something like a blessing.
Gradually, as golf followed the pattern of other sports, growing ever larger, more global, and more associated with huge amounts of corporate money, Palmer—even though he remained at the top of the list of the world’s best-paid athletes—came to represent the qualities that were being lost. During years when I wrote about golf and regularly attended professional tournaments, I’d see Palmer, always with a crowd around him, always signing someone’s cap or visor or program. With its towering, looping A and P, his signature was a work of calligraphic art, a way of showing appreciation to his admirers. He never seemed to tire of signing and shaking hands, and he had a knack for making people feel that even if their eyes locked for only a moment, he cared about them. It was as if the great Arnold Palmer had found his mission to make every single lover of the game feel a part of the same grand enterprise.
In A Golfer’s Life, Palmer acknowledges that golf has had its problems. The game has a history of discrimination, and he faults himself for not taking a more active role in trying to make it more inclusive. Yet he tacitly admits that he didn’t see himself as the agent of social and political change. His role was closer to that of another legendary American, Johnny Appleseed, who gave people a simple gift that might bring them years of pleasure. In Arnold Palmer, the public image and the private man were almost perfectly aligned. As long as he was on the scene, he had the presence, the warmth, and the generosity to make the kingdom of golf feel like an intimate club where everyone was welcome, and everyone was a king.