Arnold Palmer died two weeks ago, at age 87, and while the sports world mourned his passing it also celebrated a life that was well lived by any measure. Arnie played great golf, saw the world, made a lot of money and, by all accounts, had a lot of fun. No one could ask for more.
He wasn’t the best golfer of his era—Jack Nicklaus was—and another contemporary, Gary Player, also won more “major” championships. Indeed, Palmer’s period of golf dominance was roughly comparable to Sandy Koufax’s in baseball, a 1958-to-1964 span during which he went from age 29 to 35 and won all seven of his major titles. That must be considered brief in a sport in which it’s not uncommon for men to play at a top level well into their 40s.
Four of Palmer’s major titles came in the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, whose wide-open acres suited his powerful but less-than-precise game. Two more came at British Opens played over similar layouts. He won just one U.S. Open (in 1960) and never did capture a PGA Championship. Player won all four of those crowns, as did Nicklaus, many times.
Palmer, however, was far-and-away golf’s most popular performer as long as he competed, and one of the most popular athletes of any time. The son of a golf-course superintendent from small-town Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and with a flailing swing to go with his working-class origins, he exuded the sort of everyman appeal that was rare in what was, and still is, a predominantly country club sport.
When he flicked away his cigarette, hitched his pants, gazed intently at the flagstick and squared away to bash, we rooted for his every shot to go in, and despaired when it didn’t. The straightforward and unfeigned friendliness of his off-course manner reinforced his appeal. His “Army” included millions of people who never set foot on a golf course.
Still, Palmer’s most-lasting legacy has come not on the links but in the counting houses. With the visionary Mark McCormack, the late Cleveland lawyer and golf aficionado who founded the International Management Group, which under the initials IMG now just about runs golf, tennis and several other sports, Palmer became the first athlete to fully cash in on his celebrity. In doing so he set the pattern that Michael Jordan, David Beckham and Tiger Woods, and many lesser lights, have followed. It’s a whole new financial ball game these days, and they can thank McCormack and Arnie for that.
I had various contacts with Palmer over the years, starting with the front-page story on him I did for the Wall Street Journal in 1966, as a reporter in New York before my columnizing days. Slugged “Arnold Palmer, Inc.”, it detailed the many business ventures in which the golfer had become involved under McCormack’s guidance.
Previously, golfers’ and other jocks’ non-competitive income had been pretty much limited to signing equipment lines, playing exhibitions and, maybe, being quoted on how much they enjoyed smoking Lucky Strikes. Sam Snead, whose Wilson-brand golf clubs topped the sales charts for decades, was paid no more than $200,000 a year for the use of his name and technical advice.
The revolutionary McCormack decided to turn the tables on all that. “Any time you sell an endorsement you know that the man doing the buying will benefit from it more than you,” he told me about his epiphany. “We figured, why shouldn’t we be on the other side?”
Because of his unique popularity, Palmer was the perfect instrument for McCormack’s thrust. Soon, not only was he endorsing products ranging from ice rinks to a dry-cleaning chain (no kidding), he also came out with his own lines of golf clubs, balls, bags and sportswear and took an ownership share in the companies that made them. Those ventures still were taking off in 1966 but his annual income the year before approached $800,000, of which only $57,000 came from his winnings on the PGA Tour. By his death his net worth was $675 million, according to Internet sources, a figure that dwarfed his lifetime Tour earnings of $2.1 million and the $6.9 million he took in when his international and PGA Senior Tour prize money is included.
Through it all, and remarkably, Palmer remained much the same, approachable figure he was when he was younger. While some jock-tycoons (e.g., Tiger Woods) wrap themselves in corporate cocoons and parcel out their time and attentions parsimoniously, he was generous with his. A few years ago I wrote a book titled “For the Love of Golf” as part of the “For the Love of…” series of illustrated books I did for Triumph Books. The publisher asked me to contact Palmer to “write” the foreword; I put the word in quotes because the usual practice is for the author, or someone, to do the writing and the celeb to sign it.
I called Donald “Doc” Giffin, the ex-sportswriter who was Palmer’s long-time factotum. He said sure, send it over. I next inquired about what sort of compensation Arnie might expect. Not to worry, said Doc, a couple cartons of the book would do fine.
I can’t help but contrast that reaction with the one I received in 1996 when I was doing a piece for a Wall Street Journal golf supplement on the 1986 Masters, which I covered and which Nicklaus won in memorable fashion. Wanting a few quotes to flesh it out, I phoned Nicklaus’s “people” about setting up a brief interview with the golfer.
The guy I spoke to asked me what companies were advertising in the issue. I didn’t know and said so. Nobody’d ever asked me that. He said to find out and call him back. I did, and named Cadillac among several others. He said in that case Jack wouldn’t be speaking with me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Jack endorses Chrysler,” the guy replied.