On the commencement of play for the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando it is hard to fathom “The King” has been gone nearly three years. When Arnie passed just before the start of the 2016 Ryder Cup Matches at Hazeltine National the golf world was stunned. The icon many had loved for his welcoming smile and ever present down to earth charm was now gone.
The reach of Arnold Palmer was significant in a number of ways but there are five key areas in which Arnie’s contributions will forever be remembered.
Re-establishing “The Open”
When Palmer competed in the 100th anniversary of The Open at The Old Course at St. Andrews, the event was more about the past than anything close to a bright future. Top American professionals did not make the trek “across the pond” simply because one’s expenses were often more than what any prize amount they could earn when competing.
At the urging of his manager Mark McCormack, Palmer played in the 1960 event after capturing the first two major championships of the year — The Masters in Augusta and the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills where Arnold fired a final round 65 in winning America’s national championship. For Palmer, the thought of achieving a modern “grand slam” — the modern professional achievement to what Bobby Jones had accomplished in 1930 was his goal. Winning The Open would be the 3rd leg of such a goal with the PGA Championship to follow.
Amazingly, in 1959 there were no Americans in the field. The winner’s purse was $1,250 compared to the sum in winning the U.S. Open at $14,400. Ben Hogan won the event in his only attempt in 1953 but The Open was viewed as more of local British event than the one that would eventually flourish after Palmer’s participation.
In 1961 and 1962, Palmer earned the Claret Jug — the ’62 victory had him set the new championship four round total of 276 for 72 holes. Arnie relished the vagaries of the unpredictable weather and the zany bounces of the golf ball that only links golf can provide. For Palmer, the challenge was to show how his game could adapt to whatever circumstances happened and how he could overcome all such obstacles.
Palmer showed other Americans that being deemed a “world class golfer” meant being able to demonstrate the capacity to play beyond the USA. In the years that followed other notable American golfers such as Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods would forge ahead on the path Palmer blazed.
The photograph of Palmer standing on the Swilcan Bridge at The Old Course at St. Andrews in 1995 waving his visor is forever seared into the memory banks. The Open Palmer brought back to life is now a world event with players eager to have their name on the tee sheet. The debt to Palmer will forever be cherished and remembered.
The Masters and the Ascending Role of Television
When The Masters started in 1934, it was not even called The Masters. The event literally crawled along in the early years dependent on the goodwill of deep pocket members to keep it afloat, and, although it always had a stellar field, the activities in Augusta were limited simply because modern television was still not present.
The first national telecast took place in 1956 with CBS doing the broadcast and featuring Chris Schenkel and Bud Palmer handling the microphones. Only four holes were covered — #15 thru #18 — and all had stationary cameras.
In 1958 Palmer won the first of his four green jackets. One year later Frank Chirkinian would produce the first of many Masters telecasts for CBS and it was through Chirkinian’s efforts that both the beauty and risk /reward architectural embodiment of Augusta National Golf Club in concert with the swash-buckling golf style of Arnold Palmer were linked.
Even when Palmer lost in a tragic manner — double-bogeying the final hole in 1961 and losing by one stroke to Gary Player — he endeared himself even more so to fans throughout golf. The following Palmer created at Augusta was forever known as Arnie’s Army.
During those early years of CBS coverage of The Masters had the benefit in being played in the spring heralding a new golf season as well as having three world class players in Palmer, Nicklaus and Player — battling for green jackets each April.
When Palmer won the 1964 Masters his six-shot victory was utterly decisive and he became the event’s first four-time winner. Interestingly, at age 34 the triumph would be Palmer’s final major win at Augusta as The Masters had been his first major triumph in 1958.
The Marketing of Arnold Palmer and today’s professional players
Long before Palmer came onto the scene athletes in different sports were often linked to various products of all types for consumers to buy. The belief was that “celebrity” endorsements would drive sales as people wished to emulate athletes in all ways possible.
Palmer’s attacking style of golf, his good looks and charismatic competitive style were all elements that pushed him forward. Adroitly managed by Mark McCormack — it was the wherewithal to create a ubiquitous presence in a wide range of products that elevated the “brand” name of Palmer to all areas of modern life. The ascension of television was the critical amplifier — creating ripples of awareness far beyond what any other athlete had ever accomplished.
The Palmer brand encompassed a slew of different products and with each one pressing ahead the name recognition of Arnie went far beyond the golf course. Even years later, long after his competitive days were long over, the Palmer name still carried weight with advertisers. Palmer’s off-course income still had him near the top of all other golfers who were still active in the tournament scene.
As Palmer came of age on the golf course so did an emerging American consumer — one with an unquenchable thirst for idolizing athletes and the means — via television – to constantly stay in touch with their various activities.
It’s been said many times — that for each dollar earned by golfers today — Palmer should have received no less than 20-25% for the road he, along with McCormack, created for others to follow. Today’s elite professional golfers who whisk around the world in their private jets and pocket substantial sums of appearance money had best recall the pioneering role that Palmer blazed.
The downside of all the constant promotions was the impact such efforts had on Arnold’s game. One can never say for certain how much of an impact the time spent on off-course activities had on his efforts on the course.
Golf as a game for the masses
Prior to the emergence of Arnold Palmer — golf was a game for those with money and the time to play. The country club scene was one of exclusion — not inclusion. As America moved away from World War II the growth and buying power of an emerging middle class was taking hold.
Palmer showed how golf could be a game of a lifetime and for all income groups. As the son of a head golf professional and superintendent from Latrobe, PA — Palmer displayed a style that epitomized the common man and woman.
The boom of golf course construction during the 1960’s signaled a desire to create facilities open to the general public — providing many of the same comforts private clubs had always enjoyed. Leisure time was not the sole province of the well-to-do.
Palmer’s style of play — eschewing a plodding play with bold strokes — was endearing to the growth of this new and powerful American middle class. Many sought golf as a game to play in their adult years and to savor the networking with friends and business acquaintances.
Palmer also played a direct role in creating courses to play — over 300 were built. Although not formally an architect — Palmer hired those who were and in providing his name he created a demand from golfers to play the courses he designed. Arnie’s involvement would spur his on-course rivals Nicklaus and Player to do likewise. The sum total was a golf product — bearing his name – in all corners of the globe.
In sum — Palmer made golf “cool” to enjoy. Arnie turned the page from golf being only for the elites to a game enjoyed by the masses. In retrospect — this may be Palmer’s most significant contribution.
Bay Hill’s beacon
Though born in western Pennsylvania it was Palmer who took a fledging PGA Tour event in central Florida and turned it into the dynamic one seen today. Palmer’s roots in Latrobe were always front and center but Bay Hill was clearly a powerful pride in his heart.
Palmer was always near the 18th green greeting players completing their final round. The twinkle in his eye and the pride he had for the course he nurtured were clearly present.
Keeping the Palmer legacy front and center will be a challenge in the years to come. Today’s professional players face a compressed tour schedule — decisions to play are always challenging but became even more so this year. Tiger Woods originally planned to be in the event but because of a late neck injury will not be in the field. The record 8-time winner of the event always had a deep respect and love for The King.
The Bay Hill event was elevated recently in giving the champion a three-year exemption — beyond the customary two-year award for all other events. Palmer’s name will also be used when the rookie-of-the-year award is presented annually on the PGA Tour.
As the players arrive at the 1st tee they should pause and dwell for a moment on the meaning and lasting legacy of Arnold Palmer. That remembrance takes on special significance this week at Arnold’s home away from home — Bay Hill.