Arnold Palmer, legendary professional golfer and Coast Guard veteran, died Sunday afternoon from complications of a heart condition. He transformed the game of golf with his aggressive, magnetic playing style and he later transformed the world of business and sports marketing with a similar passion.
After dropping out of Wake Forest in 1950, Palmer enlisted as a Yeoman in the Coast Guard and served until 1953. The Coast Guard allowed Palmer to compete in amateur golf tournaments. After his service, he returned to Wake Forest and promptly won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1954.
Palmer was a working-class kid from Latrobe, PA who took the pro golfing world by storm, transforming a game that had previously been popular with the elite country club set to the massively popular pastime that it is today. His charisma and devoted fan base (dubbed “Arnie’s Army” because “Arnie’s Yeomen” wasn’t quite as catchy) inspired networks to broadcast golf tournaments in hopes they could cash in on the excitement. He won 7 major tournaments, 62 overall and was the first golfer to win a million dollars in prize money on the tour. His 1960s rivalry with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player brought fame to all three men.
And, yet, it was Palmer’s early embrace of sports marketing that truly transformed the sports world. An early alliance with lawyer Mark McCormack, whom he met in the Coast Guard, led to the creation of the International Management Group, which became the most prominent sports agency in the world.
Palmer aggressively pursued endorsements, putting his name on lines of golf clubs and clothing. Millions of Americans who knew nothing about golf knew him as the guy on the tractor who trusted Pennzoil in dozens of commercials in the ’70s and ’80s. He worked on the development or redesign of more than three hundred golf courses.
His most lasting legacy may be the drink that bears his name, the half-lemonade-half-iced-tea off-menu order known as the Arnold Palmer. He eventually made a deal with Arizona iced tea and now practically every convenience store in America is stocked with cans that bear his likeness.
Arnold Palmer paved the way for every athlete business tycoon that followed: Jack Nicklaus, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods and Lebron James all owe a debt to the Coastie from Latrobe, PA.