Arnold Palmer: 1929-2016

Paving the way to riches

Tributes have poured in for the first true golf star Arnold Palmer, whose business acumen took game to another level.
Tributes have poured in for the first true golf star Arnold Palmer, whose business acumen took game to another level. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tributes pour in for first true golf star, whose business acumen took game to another level

EAST LAKE (Georgia) • Eighteen months ago in the clubhouse at Bay Hill, venue for the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the adopted winter home of this golfing icon, Rory McIlroy was approached. "Rory; if you need anything this week, you just let me know."

McIlroy's reply was as swift as it was pertinent. "Mr Palmer, I will never want for anything at all in life. That's all because of you."

While sadness, deep sadness, understandably surrounded the confirmation that Palmer died on Sunday afternoon at the age of 87 from heart complications, there was something poetic about McIlroy's unwitting role.

On Sunday, the Northern Irishman had just completed media duties on account of claiming US$11.5 million (S$15.6 million) on the outskirts of Atlanta when he was appraised of Palmer's death.

McIlroy, like the rest of us, knew this was coming but was still deeply moved. A sporting pioneer is no more.

Every player at the top level of golf recognises Palmer's role in their riches.

Almost single-handedly, he hauled golf into fresh commercial territory both with the late 1950s recognition of what television meant and a swashbuckling, risk-taking style which appealed to the masses. So, too, did a low-key background far removed from the snotty-nosed entitlement which has so undermined golf.

Palmer, The King, was the people's champion. He transcended golf, just as he did generations.

He was the first player to earn US$1 million through on-course pursuits. By 2008, he commanded US$30 million via off-course projects.

For fun, the seven-time Major winner was a pilot. His last flight was in 2011, aged 81, from California to Orlando.

In this, a Ryder Cup week, it is worth reflecting upon the emotion and inspiration which surrounded the European team in 2012 following the death of Seve Ballesteros.

That had been four months before matters got under way at Medinah, which offers some perspective as to what will resonate in the hearts and minds of the United States players from Friday.

"Arnold leaves an impact on the game and on sports in America that is unmatched," said Davis Love, the United States captain. "As we approach the Ryder Cup this week, our team will keep Mr Palmer's family in our prayers and will draw from his strength and determination to inspire us."

Palmer played six Ryder Cups, all marked by victory, and captained his nation to comfortable glory in 1975. This was merely reflective of individual brilliance.

His professional wins totalled 95. From 1958 to 1964, 25 Major starts saw 16 top fives, including five runners-up places and those seven triumphs.

"You inspired millions, you changed the game," said Jordan Spieth. Tiger Woods offered similar sentiment. The 14-time Major winner said: "Your philanthropy and humility are part of your legend."

Palmer is survived by his second wife, two daughters as well as six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The final words here should belong to Jack Nicklaus, who may be golf's most decorated Major winner but did not have anything even approaching the commercial savvy which set Palmer apart.

"He was one of my best friends, closest friends, and he was for a long, long time. I will miss him greatly," the 76-year-old said. "He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Paving the way to riches'. Print Edition | Subscribe