Thursday, April 3, 2014

Remember Him?

     He grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. He had a famous army. He made his last major charge 50 years ago this month. But he's not in the military.

     Can you guess who he is?

     When he was growing up, one of his schoolmates was Fred Rogers, who was a year older and who went on to host "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the children's TV program that ran from 1968 to 2001.

     He attended Wake Forest University on a scholarship, but left before his senior year to enlist in the U. S. Coast Guard. He learned to fly and became an avid pilot. Flying became a crucial part of his job; and he eventually owned several planes, including a Cessna Citation X. Today, an airport is named after him in his hometown, near Pittsburgh.

A Cessna Citation X
     Younger people today know him more for a popular drink than for the sport that made him famous. He had long been in the habit of drinking a mixture of iced tea and lemonade. One day, the story goes, he was in a grill room in Colorado (or it may have been California; reports differ) and asked the bartender to mix up his special drink. A woman sitting nearby was intrigued and told the bartender that she'd have was he was having. Soon iced tea and lemonade was a popular drink among his sporting friends. He eventually hooked up with a juice company which began selling the drink, and it is now widely distributed by the Arizona Beverage Company.

     But it's neither flying nor iced tea that made him famous. Instead, he was the one who made his sport famous, often cited as the first superstar of the sport's television age. Since he came from a relatively humble background, and he was personable and plain spoken, he changed people's perception of his sport from an elite, upper-class pastime to a more democratic activity accessible to the middle and working classes.

     He played in several amateur tournaments in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and after he won the U. S. Amateur in Detroit in 1954 he decided he could make a living as a professional. He won his first professional event in 1955; he won another in 1956; and then he went on to victory in four tournaments in 1957. But it was his win at the prestigious Master's championship in April 1958 that cemented his position as a star.

     By now you probably realize that the army he had was Arnie's Army, and the charge he typically made was on the battlefield of the golf course. Arnold Palmer played golf with a flair like few others. His good looks, his modest background, his affability and the way he took risks and wore his emotions on his sleeve brought him legions of fans, who often cheered him on as he charged down the last few holes to win a championship.

     Palmer won dozens of golf tournaments, including seven of the so-called Majors  -- a record behind only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in the modern era -- and in the process he made the sport of golf a mainstay for weekend television. He also brought the game into the mainstream of American life, and if you or anyone you know plays golf today, it's likely because they idolized Arnold Palmer as a kid. In a national Associated Press poll, Arnold Palmer was named "Athlete of the Decade" for the 1960s.

     Fifty years ago, in April 1964, he won his last major, the Master's, in Augusta, Ga., generally considered the top tournament on the professional circuit. Yet he remained a crowd favorite for years, and went on to win many more championships, including ten wins on the Senior Tour in the 1980s.

     Palmer designed and built a number of golf courses, and he continued to pilot his own plane. He helped found the golf channel on cable TV, and he hosts the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament on the PGA Tour held each March at the Bay Hill Club near Orlando, Florida. 

     Palmer lost his first wife, Winnie, to cancer in 1999, and he is now remarried and living in Orlando, Fla. Palmer himself is a survivor of prostate cancer, and he has supported numerous charitable causes, including the Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando and the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center in California.

     This year the first round of the Master's tees off on Thursday, April 10. Arnold Palmer, 84, no longer competes, but he will be there to lend his support and his star power. Tiger Woods will not be playing either, due to recent surgery. But defending champion Adam Scott will be playing, along with fellow Australian Jason Day, former champion Phil Mickelson, the young Irishman Rory McIlroy, and an elite crowd of almost a hundred of the world's best golfers.

     So let the azaleas bloom, and let the tournament begin.


Denise said...

Great read. Great man!

rosaria williams said...

He's truly a great figure in the world of sport.

Stephen Hayes said...

I've never heard a bad word about Arnold Palmer. He was a class act. My in-laws were avid golfers and they held him in the highest regard. Thanks for this informative post.

Kirk said...

You forgot to mention Palmer's 1982 ads for Pennzoil where he starred with the famous 1941 Toro tractor.

Anonymous said...

I visited Augusta a few years back. Beautiful place and pricey too.
BTW. Leaving a comment on your site is very difficult. 11 tries today!

Tom Sightings said...

Dianne, I feel your pain, so I'm trying something new, besides word verification which I know is annoying as all get out. I tried going "naked" on comments once before and received a lot of spam. So this time I'm selecting "moderation" after a few days. We'll see how that works to let commenters in while keeping spammers out. Thx!

Dick Klade said...

Several of our close friends in Utah were spectators at tournaments Arnie played in. They all said in addition to being a great golfer he was a top hand at flirting with any ladies who came his way.