Arnold Palmer died Sunday
He helped widen golf's appeal
Arnold Palmer’s first set of golf clubs were cut down by his father when he was 4 years old.
The game he leaves behind after he passed away Sunday at the age of 87 is now billion-dollar industry worldwide, and that’s in large part because of his legacy.
A Western Pennsylvania native and Coast Guard veteran, the man now know as “the King” inspired thousands – maybe millions – to play the sport.
But he also leaves behind memories of a gentle giant.
“Arnold was the most charismatic, down-to-earth person I’ve ever been around, and I’ve spent a lot of time around famous people,” James Dodson, Palmer’s biographer, told CNN. ” There’s no public and private difference between Arnold Palmer. He was generous and kind and funny and loved to needle you.”
Palmer’s legacy mirrors one of his most famous quotes about golf: They’re both things that are “deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.”
‘As true-blue as the sky over Latrobe’
Palmer’s roots are grounded in foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, and that’s central to his image as an easy-to-relate-to, blue-collar guy.
“The key to Arnold’s appeal was that he was a yeoman – he was one of us. He was a guy from blue-collar Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who’s daddy was the greenskeeper,” Dodson said. “They were as true-blue as the sky over Latrobe, Pennsylvania.”
Palmer wore his emotions on his sleeve.
And he reveled in his celebrity – but not an an egotistical way. Dodson says Palmer just loved who he was and didn’t want to take anything for granted.
“He felt like somebody you knew, the guy next door, the hero, the hometown kid that became the all-American,” Dodson said. “Now he really belongs to the ages.”
Those qualities proved invaluable to the image of Palmer as an approachable superstar: His fame peaked as the TV era brought athletes’ faces and voices into Americans’ homes.
A growing game, a new type of star
When Palmer began his professional career, it was largely a country-club sport with a small following.
“Golf was coming on, it wasn’t anywhere near the magnitude that it is today. Of course I was a very enthusiastic young man looking for a way of life that I felt was coming on,” Palmer said in an interview with CNN’s Shane O’Donoghue.
Palmer was one of the first sports stars of the television era. That helped him connect with the audience in a way that his predecessors could not.
And he used that fame and golf’s growth to help craft a new definition of what it means to be a star athlete.
GQ Magazine named him one of the “50 most stylish men of the past 50 years” and Esquire listed him as one of the “75 best-dressed men of all time.”
And then there’s the drink.
“Arnold was the first millionaire on the tour. He was the first to buy an airplane and fly it. He was the man who basically invented the concept of sports representation in the media and made a fortune doing it,” Dodson said.
Following Palmer’s electrifying victories at the Master’s and US Open in 1960, golf has had nearly 50 years of unprecedented global growth, Dodson explains.
“Every tour player needs to kiss the ground he walked on because he made them all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.”
Palmer’s time as a military man – he spent three years in the Coast Guard – made him all the more endearing to his fans, which are known as “Arnie’s Army.”
But his following among America’s military was in part a function of the history of the Master’s.
The tournament – which is now one of the most expensive events to attend in the US – was hardly a sellout event, Palmer wrote on his website.
Augusta National’s co-founder, Clifford Roberts, would use GIs from the nearby Camp Gordon, which is now Fort Gordon, to work the scoreboard. Soldiers in uniform could attend the event for free.
“A lot of the soldiers did not necessarily know a lot about golf, but when they found out that I was defending champion they joined my gallery,” Palmer said.
“I can’t remember another time, other than my stint in the Coast Guard, when so many uniformed soldiers surrounded me.”
When he won the Master’s in 1960, his army of supporters was there again. And they followed him to the US Open later that year, where he won in one of the greatest comebacks in golf history.
“When I was a boy learning to play golf in my hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I never could have imagined that one day I’d have an ‘Army’ of fans or that people would call me ‘The King’ of the sport I love,” Palmer said.
Dodson says Palmer leaves the game as its most famous player in its 400-plus year history.
“I think his loss will be felt forever,” Dodson says. “His legacy will be one of kindness and love of the game and love of his fans. And I don’t think anybody will ever come close to that.
CNN’s Judy Kwon and Madison Park contributed to this report