Seven major wins and 62 international titles — that is one heck of a career, enough to cement any player’s status in the pantheon of all-time greats.
However, in the case of Arnold Palmer, numbers are the last thing that come to mind when celebrating an extraordinary life. Known to everyone as The King, Palmer truly transcended sport. Golf will forever be in his debt for what he did on the course, and more importantly, off it.
There have been mavericks in the sport before he arrived on the scene, but Palmer really was the king of cool. His brand of golf was unique and appealed to everyone – he believed that the Balata was born to be butchered with the most vicious of swings. There never existed a shot which he thought was impossible to pull off. Add to it his handsome looks, his blue-collar appeal and his amazing connect with the fans – golf suddenly became the most aspirational sport in the United States in the mid 1950s.
Palmer was a real-life Pied Piper. Such was his persona that people were drawn to him. It started with that famous smile, and the fact that he always looked everyone straight in the eye. And he seemed to have time for everyone. Even days before his death, he’d religiously spend a dedicated hour in his office everyday, signing photographs and sending them to every fan who bothered to write to him.
There are several stories about him, but one of my favourite ones is of the time he purchased the Latrobe Country Club in 1971. That was the place where his father, Deacon, would spend hours working as a greenskeeper. As a child, Arnold dreamed of owning the place one day, and he did. It was straight out of a Hollywood script, and people loved him because he always dared to chase his dreams.
Palmer’s impact is felt in other spheres of life as well. After all, there would be no IMG, the sports marketing behemoth, if he had not agreed to let Mark McCormack represent him. What started with just a handshake is now a billion dollar business for both IMG and for Arnold Palmer Inc.
Then there was The Golf Channel. When Palmer co-founded the 24-hour golf channel, most people laughed off the idea saying dedicated sports channels did not make any business sense. Today, almost every major sport has its own dedicated channel.
Of course, Palmer’s legacy will also live on through the 300-plus golf courses he designed, including Bay Hill which hosts his annual Arnold Palmer Invitational.
But Palmer’s most significant contribution would be the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies and the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children – the two speciality hospitals in Orlando that keeps on giving the gift of life.
Henrik Stenson once told me that he considers the hospitals as Palmer’s greatest gift to people. His kids, like that of many other golfers including Tiger Woods, were born in Winnie Palmer Hospital and he even got misty-eyed talking about the children being treated at the other facility.
That Arnold Palmer would leave us one day was inevitable. But his achievements and larger than life persona ensure The King will live on forever.