Remembering Arnold Palmer, charismatic sports star who changed golf

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Honorary starter Arnold Palmer gestures after hitting a drive to begin the 2007 Masters golf tournament on the first tee at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, U.S. on April 5, 2007.     REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo - RTSPEGP

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GWEN IFILL: The tributes have poured in all day for golfing legend Arnold Palmer, from his friend and rival Jack Nicklaus, to recent champions like Tiger Woods, to dignitaries like President Obama.

A handful of other champions won more tournaments and titles, but Palmer set a standard for attracting public attention to the sport.

William Brangham has a look back at the king.

ANNOUNCER: The U.S. open, played in the shadow of the Rockies, saw Arnold Palmer sink an incredible putt.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: June 1960, Denver, Colorado, an improbable win in the U.S. Open became the stuff of golfing legend.

ANNOUNCER: Coming from seven strokes behind, Palmer showed nerves of steel and a will of granite, as he battled to win the U.S. Open.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And it defined the style of Arnold Palmer.

ANNOUNCER: Golfing’s man of the year.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It was, perhaps, Palmer’s greatest year. He had won the Masters just two months earlier, and, all told, won eight times that season. He followed up with victories at the next two British Opens, and two more Masters in 1962 and ’64.

He reflected on his success in a 2011 interview with Charlie Rose.

ARNOLD PALMER, Former Professional Golfer: Any time I got close, it was just I felt I had to win. I had to. I couldn’t lose. I couldn’t let that happen to me. And it worked.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Arnold Daniel Palmer was born on September 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh.

He began swinging a club at age 4 and practically lived at the area country club, where his dad was first the greenskeeper, and later, the club pro. Palmer won the U.S. Amateur in 1954, turned pro the next year and quickly began piling up victories, 62 over his career, including seven major championships.

He had a ferocious, muscular swing that made him one of golf’s greatest drivers. And his magnetic, down-to-earth personality drew an energetic fan base, dubbed Arnie’s Army. He helped turn golf into a major television sport.

ARNOLD PALMER: The game is so fantastic. If I had a little bit to do with some of the enjoyment that I see today, I’m pleased with that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The fans had a lot to enjoy, especially in the 1960s, when Palmer was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade. He was so popular, he ended up with his own drink. The lemonade-iced tea combo he loved was named after him.

Along the way, he famously forged a bond with President Dwight Eisenhower, himself an avid golfer, as Palmer recalled at the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.

ARNOLD PALMER: My relationship with Eisenhower is one of the great relationships that I have ever had in my life.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Arnold Palmer’s own success extended far beyond his play. He developed a passion for course design, putting his stamp on about 300 worldwide, and creating the Arnold Palmer Design Company.

ARNOLD PALMER: For me, that has to be a Cadillac.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He was also a sports marketing pioneer, advertising everything from Cadillac, to the blood-thinner Xarelto in his later years.

Palmer made time as well for philanthropy, opening a children’s hospital and investing in youth development. In 2004, he became the first golfer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2012, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Even in his later years, he stayed active in golf, playing his final competitive match at the age of 77. He took over as honorary starter at the Masters in 2007.

After that, his friends and longtime rivals Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player joined him.

Arnold Palmer died Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was 87 years old.

And for more on Palmer’s legacy, I’m joined now by George Savaricas of The Golf Channel, who’s covered Palmer’s career, and just interviewed him a week ago.

George, thank you very much for being here.

For those of us who haven’t really followed his career, just tell us what a — what made him such a tremendous talent on the golf course itself?

GEORGE SAVARICAS, Golf Channel: I would say, on the golf course, it was clearly his style of play, because if you look all time, he wasn’t the winningest golfer, by any stretch of the imagination.

That honor would go to Jack Nicklaus, and then Tiger Woods is also in the conversation. But, for Arnold, his style of play was one that was fearless, bordering at times on reckless. But it was one that fans could easily relate to and support, because he always had a go-for-broke mentality, that if there was a shot that he could pull off, even if the percentage play was to maybe be a little more conservative, then he would always go for broke, go for the gusto.

And that was something that really appealed to the crowds back then and it helped build upon what became just a — not just a brand on the golf course, but a brand off the golf course as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It seems like, just as you say, that he came along at a time when golf sort of had this stodgy image of the country club set, and he sort of gave it this charisma and this sort of blue-collar appeal that seemed pretty novel at the time.

GEORGE SAVARICAS: Yes, he was a guy who had fairly humble beginnings, definitely part of middle-class America.

His father was a greenskeeper. And he grew up playing at Latrobe Country Club, so he was a guy who understood the value of earning a dollar and an honest day’s paycheck. So when he really burst on the scene and golf was first being televised, it didn’t hurt that he had movie star-type looks and was the guy who was at the top of the game from about 1957 to 1963, into the mid to late ’60s.

So he was able to pile up seven major victories, which was remarkable at that time. And he did it in a short period of time. So he transitioned from doing that and becoming this figurehead on the course to almost a secondary career, where he was able to become just as successful, if not more so, a successful businessman.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the things I have been struck by today in a lot of the tributes to him is that not only talking about his talent, but also that he just seemed to be apparently an incredibly magnanimous person outside of sport. Did you see that?

GEORGE SAVARICAS: Oh, clearly.

For instance, today, I was at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, a private country club that he bought back in 1974, moved the tournament, the PGA tour event that’s held in Orlando to there in 1979. And I was just hanging outer with the members and getting their stories.

And he was the most unassuming global celebrity that you could ever come across. He had a specific table that he would sit at every day and play cards with the guys or play a game of golf or have a bite to eat or have a cocktail with them and just tell stories.

And everyone, the first time they would meet him, be it if you were an A-list celebrity or just a guy off the street, would be nervous, because you’re approaching Arnold Palmer, and that’s a name that resonates not just with my generation or my mom’s generation or my grandparents’ generation, with all of those, because he’s been an A-list-plus celebrity for 50, 60 years.

So, it was just amazing to hear their stories, and then to hear from guys on the PGA Tour, be it Tiger Woods, or Jack Nicklaus, or Phil Mickelson, or even younger guys like Rickie Fowler or Jordan Spieth, just what it meant to them to either share moments or share big chunks of their life where they were lucky enough to call Arnold Palmer a friend.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We take it for granted now that celebrities who excel get endorsement deals and that’s a big part of their career, but he was really a pioneer in that regard as well, right?

GEORGE SAVARICAS: That’s kind of the forgotten story when you look at the lasting legacy that Arnold Palmer will leave behind, with what he and Mark McCormack were able to do with starting IMG.

And it’s something that is not lost on the modern player. I spoke with Suzann Pettersen today, who is a star on the LPGA tour. And she said she’s a member at Bay Hill Club. When she was looking at representation and trying to figure out what move to make just a few years ago, she talked to Arnold Palmer and reached out for advice.

And he told her the story of how he and Mark McCormack starting IMG together and how he was able to really build his brand off the course by gaining endorsements and then spinning that to a secondary career when his playing days were over. He’s been able to as profitable and successful as he was, or even more so, than when he was an A-list golfer and one of the top draws on the PGA Tour.

So it’s something that the modern players, A, have to be thankful for and, B, can still learn lessons from.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I understand that you interviewed him not too long and asked him what he thought his lasting legacy of the game would be. What did he tell you?

GEORGE SAVARICAS: Yes. It was just a week-and-a-half ago. And it’s amazing to think that I went from laughing and joking with him. And it was just so recent.

It was part of the Latrobe Classic, which he has hosted four years in a row to raise money for the Arnie’s Army Foundation. And what he’s done for health care in the Orlando area with the Arnold Palmer Hospital, the Winnie Palmer children’s hospital, which has delivered more than 150,000 babies, you could tell that that’s what got him excited at this stage in his life and his career.

And I had asked him — it was just two days after his 87th birthday, when we had this interview — what his goals were going forward. And raising money for that hospital — they have a $2 million goal that they’re well en route to. That was at the forefront of his mind. And you could see that twinkle in his eye, that that’s what was getting him excited to push forward.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, George Savaricas of The Golf Channel, thanks so much for sharing your memories of the man.

GEORGE SAVARICAS: Of course.

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