Arnold Palmer: Things You Didn't Know About The Golf Legend
(U.S. Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons)
Everyone knows the name Arnold Palmer, be it as a cool drink or one of the greatest golfers who ever lived, but the man was more than his legend. Palmer was also a world traveler and pilot who palled around with the likes of no less than Mister Rogers. Whether you're a golf fan or not, this rags-to-riches story of a boy from the outskirts of Pittsburgh claiming his destiny as one of the world's top athletes without ever succumbing to the madness of celebrity will definitely inspire you to go out and live your life to the fullest.
The Early Years
Every legend has to start somewhere, and for Arnold Palmer, it was in the steel town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, about an hour away from Pittsburgh, on September 10, 1929. His father was a golf pro and groundskeeper at the Latrobe Country Club, and Palmer's natural ability was apparent from a young age, so he was often seen tagging along with his father from the tender age of three. H went on to win the Western Pennsylvania Junior three times and the Western Pennsylvania Amateur five times, earning himself a golf scholarship at Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Following a stint in the Coast Guard, Palmer won the 1955 Canadian open, the Masters in '58, and by 1960, had developed a following known as "Arnie's Army," a vociferous group of fans who responded to Palmer's lax style and everyman sensibilities. He won 29 PGA Tour events between 1960 and 1963, he was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1960, and in 1967, he became the first man to reach $1 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. When asked how he managed to go out and win so consistently, Palmer's answer was refreshingly zen:
You can make mistakes when you're being conservative, so why not go for the hole? I always feel like I'm going to win. So I don't feel I'm gambling on a lot of shots that make other people feel I am.
Always Grand, Never A Grand Slam Winner
For all his success, Palmer never became a Grand Slam winner (that is, bagging the Masters Tournament, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, and the British Open). He desperately wanted to earn this unofficial championship, not for his career's sake but because it would have made his father happy. Palmer later lamented:
I should have won it a couple times. I wanted it too bad. Everyone was calling it to my attention.
In 1954, Palmer was playing at a tournament in eastern Pennsylvania when he met Winifred Walzer, a 19-year-old interior design student at Pembroke College. Four days after their initial meeting, he proposed to her, and they eloped on December 20, 1954. Even though their courting period was brief, the couple were together until she passed away in 1999. Through their long relationship, the Palmers were rarely apart, traveling from tournament to tournament in a used Winnebago in their early days. Their inseparability was later commemorated in the form of the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, the two halves of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center.
The Palmer Pilot
Palmer purchased a used twin-prop Aero Commander in 1962, becoming the first pro golfer to fly from tournament to tournament. In 1966, he began flying jets across the world with two copilots and an observer, later setting a world record for his jet's weight category when he circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes, and 42 seconds in 1976.
That Arnold Palmer Drink
The Arnold Palmer, a mix of iced tea and lemonade, was named after Palmer sat down after a long, hot day of working on a golf course in Palm Springs sometime in the '60s and ordered the drink. A woman a few tables over said, "I'll have that Arnold Palmer drink," and a summer classic was born.
Arnold Palmer And Mister Rogers
Another Pittsburgh mainstay who came to prominence in the turbulent '60s, Fred Rogers, grew up within a few miles of Arnold Palmer. While they never crossed paths in their youth, they became pen pals as adults, and their families even hung out together over the holidays. Visitors to the Rogers Center, an area dedicated to Mister Rogers on the 50-acre Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, can find letters between the two men.
The Final Years
Palmer never stopped making history. On June 17, 1994, the day that O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on a low-speed chase through Los Angeles, Palmer was playing his final round in a U.S. Open. At the same time, the World Cup was getting under way in Chicago, and the Knicks were playing for the NBA championship in the Garden. It was a weird day, one that Palmer is intrinsically tied to forever.
Palmer was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, but he continued winning awards well into the 2000s, including the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 and even the Presidential Medical of Freedom in 2004. When he was 70 years old, he estimated that he played about 260 rounds of golf every year, a figure that would give even players in their prime pause.
On September 25, 2016, Palmer died awaiting heart surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh. Shortly after his death, President Obama spoke about Palmer, calling him the "American dream come to life."
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