Arnold Palmer: Master Golfer

People, Sports
on March 26, 2006
Wikimedia Commons Arnold Palmer circa 1953

It’s been 40 years since Arnold Palmer was awarded the green blazer traditionally given to the winner of professional golf’s most prestigious event. And though he won’t take part in this year’s Masters Tournament April 6-9 at the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, the man who set golf on fire in the 1960s remains plenty busy today as a business executive, aviator, advertising spokesman, golf course designer/consultant, philanthropist and humanitarian.

And he still manages to play a little golf, too.

“Golf is still his life,” says Doc Giffin, Palmer’s agent. “He practices or plays a round almost every afternoon.”

But over the past two decades, Palmer’s famous swing has taken a backseat—at least publicly—to his other roles, including sharing his famously big heart with people in need.

His own father was born with polio, a fact that Palmer, now 76, admits steeled him with resolve to help others. “I am extremely pleased if I can help anyone do something that will help them in their lives,” he says. “It’s an ongoing situation for me to try and be somewhat of a philanthropist. But I also feel like people who are not extremely wealthy, but who make contributions to charity, show something even more giving and helpful.”

For 20 years, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he served as honorary national chairman of the March of Dimes, which works to prevent infant mortality, birth defects and premature births. And his passionate concern for children opened the door two decades ago to help young people even more directly—as founder of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando, Fla.

“When Mr. Palmer toured our pediatric intensive care unit at what was then the Orlando Regional Medical Center, he was finishing up and casually said to some of the folks in the group that ‘It just seems like we could do better than that for our kids,’” recalls John Bozard, 56, head of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation. The foundation embraces both the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies (named after Arnold’s late wife, Winnifred, to whom he was married for 45 years before her death of cancer in 1999) and the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

Palmer smiles in recollecting the moment. “The next thing that happened, the city fathers came back to me and said, ‘You object to some of the things the hospital has done in pediatrics—why don’t you help us and lend your name to doing a children and women’s hospital?’”

His word is gold

Through a simple handshake, Palmer agreed to help. The center’s immediate need, not surprisingly, was for an infusion of philanthropic dollars. Palmer dug deep, as he has done numerous times over the years. While the foundation does not reveal specific amounts of money contributed by donors, Bozard calls Palmer’s sum “substantial.” And he has continued to support the facility over the years. “I don’t know of a time when he’s told me he’d do something that he didn’t do it,” Bozard says. “When Arnold tells you something, you can take his word to the bank. He is as solid as gold.”

A gilded standard is exactly what Palmer set in 1960, when he first began to entrench himself in sports lore with his stalking, warrior-like charges that took golf and the country by storm. His legendary saga started at only 4 years old when his father, a course superintendent at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club—a course that Palmer now owns—first cut down a pair of clubs to young Arnold’s size. The future champ began swinging away, eventually launching an astonishing career that would include seven major tournament triumphs and 92 career wins worldwide.

Palmer’s headline-making triumph in the 1960 U.S. Open, following his second of four lifetime Masters wins two months earlier, almost single-handedly energized the entire sport, ignited a legion of fanatical Palmer fans—the fabled “Arnie’s Army”—and educated the entire country on the excitement of competitive golf.

Almost half of Palmer’s time today is split among golf-related business and personal appearances. Competitively, he remains active with the Champions (PGA Senior) Tour, though he has cut back, making just eight appearances last year.

Off the links, Palmer and wife Kit, whom he married in January 2005, divide their time between homes in Latrobe, Pa. (pop. 8,994), and Bay Hill, Fla. (pop. 5,177).

Palmer’s admirers point to the sense of integrity, sportsmanship and confidence he has brought to every phase of his career. “He’s a true-blue person and it shines through,” says Jerry Palmer, 61, Arnold’s younger brother and general manager of Latrobe Country Club as well as his brother’s residential and commercial properties in Latrobe. “What he says, he means.”

Palmer’s well-known integrity in the golfing world spawned his long-running offshoot career as an advertising spokesman, something that came naturally. With everything from automobile oil to home-health care and long-lasting batteries, Palmer’s friendly face invited consumers to try the product.

Valuable lessons learned

But even the man with the Midas touch wasn’t invincible to life’s occasional arrows. Palmer is a prostate cancer survivor who has crusaded tirelessly for early detection through regular testing ever since his encounter with the disease in 1997. “Early detection is the key to almost all cancers,” says Palmer, who has raised millions of dollars for prostate cancer research by serving as honorary chairman of Arnie’s Army Battles Prostate Cancer, a golfing program affiliated with the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Ultimately, the scary event was just a bump in the road for Palmer, who says he has learned some valuable lessons during times of difficultly and defeat. One came in 1966 at a tournament on the Cherry Hills course outside Denver. Solidly ahead entering the final round of the U.S. Open, Palmer saw his commanding lead whittled away by the relentless, ironically Palmer-like charge of Billy Casper, who ultimately edged Palmer for the title. That defeat is not lost on him to this day.

“When you reflect on something like losing a seven-stroke lead, it’s difficult,” Palmer concedes. “But after having won the Open and then losing the Open, like I did then, I found out a lot more about life, friendships and what life was all about. It was extremely gratifying to know that winning a golf tournament such as the Open at that point in time wasn’t the only thing in the world that can be gratifying.”

A large part of that gratification for Palmer continues to be giving his best effort to whatever he’s involved with. And, as always, the Palmer method is a personal one.

“He’ll walk down the halls and take time to talk,” says Bozard of the golfing icon’s visits to the medical facility bearing his name. “I’ve seen him stop and gather two or three of our housekeeping staff around him and tell them just how much he appreciates them keeping the place so clean.” During moments like that, Palmer’s reputation as a sports immortal, wealthy benefactor and astute businessman are overshadowed by a more immediate, more intimate impression.

“We just really see him,” Bozard says, “as a very kind, gentle, tenderhearted person.”

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