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Golf legend Arnold Palmer dies at 87

Arnold Palmer, 87, whose looks, charisma and personality helped bring the game of golf out from the private country clubs and to the masses, died THISDAY at his home in Latrobe, Pa., after being ill for several months.

Arnold Palmer, 87, whose looks, charisma and personality helped bring the game of golf out from the private country clubs and to the masses, died Sunday after being ill for several months, the U.S. Golf Association and Golf Digest reported.

He died in a Pittsburgh hospital while awaiting cardiac surgery, according to CNN.

Mr. Palmer was called "The King" not just because he excelled at golf but because he blended that skill and an appealing go-for-broke style of play that prompted the sport to explode onto the nation's TV screens in the late 1950s.

Even with the players who came behind him, such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, the emergence of Palmer as golf's first TV superstar advanced the popularity and stature of the game and increased its profile, resulting in more lucrative sponsorship and TV deals.

Mr. Palmer had been in ill health for several months. For the first time in 10 years, he chose not to take part in hitting the ceremonial first tee shots of the 2016 Masters, sitting in a lawn chair as fellow honorees Nicklaus and Player performed the honor. In June, Mr. Palmer decided his health was not good enough for him to travel to nearby Oakmont Country Club for the U.S. Open.

He was golf's ultimate ambassador. After turning pro in November 1954, a few months after capturing the U.S. Amateur championship, Mr. Palmer won 62 tournaments on the PGA Tour, 12 more on the Senior PGA Tour, and 18 in international events. His first win came in the 1955 Canadian Open, his last in the 1988 Crestar Classic.

Off the course, he would pilot his own jet to golf tournaments, charity functions and business meetings. He was a friend to presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower. He became a course designer, a commercial pitchman and a philanthropist. He owned Latrobe Country Club and was president and principal owner of Bay Hill Country Club in Orlando.

As his popularity grew around the world, Mr. Palmer never forgot his roots in Latrobe, where he grew up the son of a strict father and a loving mother who taught him the importance of treating people right.

"What he taught me was for my well-being, for my life, regardless of what I did, whether I played golf or worked in a steel mill or cut fairways or was a professional at a club or whatever I might have done," Mr. Palmer said in a 2004 interview at the Masters. "What he taught me was manners, to be polite and to treat other people like I would like to be treated."

People who encountered Mr. Palmer usually were taken aback by how friendly and accessible he was. He once played a round with the late Jim Sykes, former executive director of the Golf Association of Philadelphia, and Sykes said a young pro in their group told him afterward, "There were times I didn't even realize I was playing with Arnold Palmer. That's how much of a regular guy he was."

Mr. Palmer's grace, manner and blue-collar background helped fans identify with him. The crowds that came out to professional tournaments, particularly the majors, would flock to his group to watch the man with the thick forearms, strong hands, and sometimes a cigarette, hence creating "Arnie's Army."

It was that personality that made Mr. Palmer the face of golf when TV started to carry more tournaments. It started at the 1958 Masters, the first of four green jackets (also 1960, 1962, 1964) captured by Mr. Palmer, representing more than half of the seven majors (one U.S. Open, two British Opens) that he won.

"Every one of these kids that are playing today should have Arnold Palmer's picture in their house and kiss it every morning," Trevino once said.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the combination of Mr. Palmer, TV and the Masters gave the game a shot in the arm.

"They came together in the late 50s and early 60s and kicked off a wave of enthusiasm about the game that had been without parallel," Finchem said in 2000. "Arnold Palmer drove all of that. And the enthusiasm that people had about Arnold drove all of that."

1960 U.S. Open

Perhaps the high point of Mr. Palmer's career, one that cemented his reputation as an aggressive, never-give-up competitor, came in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills outside Denver. At that time, the final two rounds of the Open were played on Saturday, and Mr. Palmer trailed 54-hole leader Mike Souchak by seven strokes entering the afternoon.

At lunch, Mr. Palmer asked two veteran writers, Dan Jenkins of the Fort Worth Press and the late Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press, if a final-round 65 would be good enough to win. Drum made some remarks "that really [ticked] me off," Mr. Palmer said. He went out and drove the first green, a par-4, and went on to birdie six of the first seven holes, finished with a 65, and won his only Open title.

"Arnold would not have been Arnold without Cherry Hills," Jenkins wrote later.

Nicklaus, who finished second, the first of his 19 runner-up finishes in majors, commented in a 1994 interview how Mr. Palmer "does things aggressively, with a flair.

"Arnold's personality has revealed itself in everything he does in his game, the way he carries himself down the fairway, in the way he's won the support of the public," Nicklaus said.

Mr. Palmer spent time in the Philadelphia area. He won the first Whitemarsh Classic, later known as the Philadelphia Golf Classic and the IVB Classic, in 1963 at Whitemarsh Valley. He competed frequently in the Senior PGA Tour's United Hospitals Classic, which became the Bell Atlantic Classic, at Chester Valley and Hartefeld National.

He also visited Merion Golf Club on occasion, having played there with President Eisenhower, golfer Jimmy Demaret and entertainer Ray Bolger in a Heart Fund charity outing. He was a contestant in both the 1971 and 1981 Opens at Merion and visited again in 2013 for the Champions Dinner prior to that year's Open.

Worked with his father

Arnold Daniel Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, Pa., one of four children of Doris and Milfred (Deacon) Palmer. His father was the club professional and greens superintendent at Latrobe Country Club, where the young Palmer learned the game. He started caddying at age 11 and would go on to work almost every job at the club.

His father was a stern man, often harsh. In the 1999 book "A Golfer's Life" that he co-wrote with author Jim Dodson, Mr. Palmer told the story of when, on his 16th birthday, his father came home after a night of drinking and started yelling at his mother.

He stepped between his parents and his father looked at him "with surprise and then rage . . . It was unthinkable that I would challenge him in his house," according to the book. He said his father "grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me off the floor with those massive hands of his, and slammed me against a galvanized stovepipe, flattening it against the wall."

Mr. Palmer ran out of the house and returned in the morning. He said his father "never laid a hand on me in anger again." Still, he said his father rarely complimented him, and he would strive even harder to succeed in an attempt to get a kind word from him.

Mr. Palmer won the PIAA state golf championship in 1946 and 1947 before heading to Wake Forest. He withdrew from the university during his senior year after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident. He served three years in the Coast Guard - some of that time in Cape May, N.J., where he would travel to play Atlantic City Country Club when he could.

He worked for his father at Latrobe, driving the tractor that later would become famous in his commercials for Penzoil, and competed in amateur events.

His 1954 U.S. Amateur win became the first breakthrough in his career, and his personal life also changed that year when he met and married Winifred Walzer. He won 10 PGA Tour events before earning his first major title, at the 1958 Masters, where he eagled the 13th hole en route to a 1-stroke victory. Military personnel from nearby Fort Gordon worked some scoreboards, and some fashioned signs that said "members of Arnie's Army."

Mr. Palmer birdied the final two holes to win his second Masters in 1960, a year in which "Arnie's Army" was officially recognized. At the victory ceremony, he thanked his "army" of supporters, a sentence that was picked up by a reporter for the Augusta Chronicle with "Arnie's" attached before it.

In his official biography, Mr. Palmer said of the 1960 final round: "The cheers of the crowd that day will always be among my greatest memories. I know the support of Arnie's Army had as much to do with my winning the championship as the shots I played."

The Masters triumph helped launch a four-year stretch of terrific golf during which he won 33 events and captured three money titles. He had a shot at the Grand Slam in 1960 having won the Masters and the U.S. Open. However, in his first-ever trip to the British Open, he lost by one shot at St. Andrews to Kel Nagle but convinced many other U.S. players to head overseas to play in the major.

"Just the atmosphere of the Open and playing in Scotland, well, it has been probably as important a part of my career as anything I've done in golf," Palmer said in a 2003 interview. "That's saying quite a lot, and it remains and will always remain very important to me."

After a near-miss in the 1961 Masters, where he double bogeyed the last hole, Mr. Palmer won his first of back-to-back British Opens, this one at Royal Birkdale, the second one at Royal Troon. He prevailed in a three-way playoff at the 1962 Masters and won his seventh and final major two years later at Augusta National, running away to a 6-stroke victory. He also captained the victorious 1963 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

After that, major championship golf became a frustrating exercise. He finished second three times in the PGA Championship (1964, 1968, 1970), the only major he never won. At the 1966 U.S. Open in San Francisco, he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to Billy Casper and lost in a playoff, one of four second-place finishes in the Open - three in playoffs.

His last PGA Tour victory came in the 1973 Bob Hope Classic. He won two international events after that before going on to the Senior PGA Tour in 1980 when he captured two tournaments as a "rookie." After his last victory in 1988, he kept competing but expressed frustration with his performances.

Thanks to a special exemption from the U.S. Golf Association, Mr. Palmer played in his 32nd and final U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, receiving standing ovations all over the course. He missed the 36-hole cut and came into a jammed media interview room but left after two questions when he was overcome with emotion.

His competitive appearances dwindled over the years. His inability to play up to his standards left him discouraged, but he kept his sense of humor, telling the media once that he appreciated the crowds but that "people only come out to see me now so that they can feel better about their own game."

Hall of Famer

Along his career, Mr. Palmer built a business empire, launching it with the help of Mark McCormack, founder of the International Management Group, the largest sports marketing company in the world. He started the Arnold Palmer Design Co., which created nearly 300 courses. He began a chain of automobile dealerships. He became a part investor in Pebble Beach, the California golf resort and continued his affiliation on the board at Laurel Valley in Ligonier, Pa.

In 1995, Mr. Palmer teamed with cable entrepreneur Joe Gibbs to launch the Golf Channel, the first single-sport cable network in the United States. Comcast acquired the network in 2000.

Mr. Palmer was an original inductee to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2004 and the Congressional Golf Medal in 2009. He also was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 2010, the 50th anniversary of his first appearance in the British Open.

He has continued his charity work for the benefit of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando and Latrobe Area Hospital. After undergoing surgery in 1997 for prostate cancer, he became the public face for the disease and encouraged testing whenever possible while leading fund-raising efforts.

He also became successful with the drink that bears his name, a mix of iced tea and lemonade. Reports say he ordered the mixture of drinks in the late 1960s at Palm Springs, Calif., and a woman sitting nearby who heard him told her server, "I'll have that Arnold Palmer drink." Palmer's company struck a deal in 2010 with Arizona Beverage Co., to bottle and distribute the product.

Another favorite pastime for Mr. Palmer was going into his shop and tinkering with golf clubs, changing grips or shafts or lofts and then trying them out on the practice range.

Winnie Palmer died of cancer in November 1999. Mr. Palmer married Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop in January 2005 in Hawaii.

Mr. Palmer is survived by his two daughters, Peggy Palmer Wears and Amy Palmer Saunders, along with six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, and by his wife's three children and eight grandchildren. He also is survived by his brother, Jerry, and sisters Lois Jean Tilly and Sandra Sarni.

Funeral services were pending.