Arnold Palmer, the pants-hitching, chain-smoking son of a greens keeper who helped transform golf from an elite country club pursuit to a sport for the masses, winning every major honor the game has to offer along the way, has died at age 87, the U.S. Golf Association said Sunday.
Palmer, known as "the King," pursued a rivalry with Jack Nicklaus — whose nickname, "the Golden Bear," illustrated the differences in their styles and personalities — that thrilled fans for three decades.
"We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87," the USGA said Sunday night. Multiple reports said he died in Pittsburgh, near his lifetime home of Latrobe, Pa.
At a time when some professional golfers were still tooling around the course in plus-fours, Palmer popularized a modern, exciting form of golf on the edge, often scrambling to save par or even come in under par after having driven off-line into the woods or bunkers.
He played by the seat of the pants he regularly hoisted back up to his waist in an every man gesture that endeared him to everyday duffers around the world. They were known as "Arnie’s Army."
Palmer was born in Latrobe, where his father, Deacon Palmer was the head pro and greens keeper at Latrobe Country Club.
After attending Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem, N.C., (now Wake Forest University), which he attended on a golf scholarship, Palmer served three years in the Coast Guard before returning to school and winning the U.S. Amateur Open in 1954.
He quickly turned pro, and it wasn’t long before he won the Canadian Open in 1955. He went on to win seven major championships — including four Masters. Several of his victories cam in gritty match-ups with Nicklaus in what became one of the leading rivalries in all of sports.
He completed his last Masters in 1984 — the 50th straight year he’d qualified for the game’s marquee tournament in Augusta, Ga.