Palmer’s appeal went beyond the golf world. He was handsome, charming, and charismatic, as well as one of the top players of the 1950s and 1960s, but beyond that, he was a savvy businessman whose endorsements netted him millions, and whose reach went well beyond sports: for example, the Arnold Palmer drink, made with equal parts lemonade and iced tea, is named after him. Golfweek reports that in his heyday, Palmer was a phenomenon:
Palmer’s combination of matinee-idol looks, charisma and blue-collar background made him a superstar just as golf ushered in the television era. He became Madison Avenue’s favorite pitchman, accepting an array of endorsement deals that generated millions of dollars in income on everything from licensed sportswear to tractors to motor oil and even Japanese tearooms. Credit goes to agent Mark McCormack, who sold the Palmer personality and the values he represented rather than his status as a tournament winner. Palmer’s business empire grew to include a course-design company, a chain of dry cleaners, car dealerships, as well as ownership of Bay Hill Resort & Lodge in Orlando. He even bought Latrobe Country Club, which his father helped build with his own hands and where as a youth Palmer was permitted only before the members arrived in the morning or after they had gone home in the evening. Palmer designed more than 300 golf courses in 37 states, 25 countries and five continents (all except Africa and Antarctica), including the first modern course built in China, in 1988.
Palmer also was just the sixth athlete to win the Congressional Gold Medal, which he was awarded in 2012. He also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. The two awards are the highest honors that the United States can bestow on a civilian:
He was the first professional golfer with his own raucous cheering section. The original members of Arnie’s Army were GIs from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Ga., and Palmer was at ease with these enlisted men, knocking back cold ones with them on those occasions when they landed at the same bar. For some years in the 1950s and ‘60s, Palmer was a smoker, a vodka-and-steak man, and a night owl, but the protective press of his era never showed him in that light. People who followed the game closely knew, and he never pretended to be something other than what he was.
Palmer was 87.