The King lives on: Arnold Palmer’s sporting legacy

One of the greatest golfers of all time, Arnold Palmer’s passing in Ryder Cup week has united the game in tribute. But his legacy goes far beyond the course: there have been few more transformative figures in sport.

The King lives on: Arnold Palmer’s sporting legacy

The king is gone but he's not forgotten. 

One of the greatest golfers of all time, and a transformative figure in the whole business and culture of sport, Arnold Palmer died on Monday 26th October at the age of 87.  

“Arnold transcended the game of golf,” said Jack Nicklaus, his long-time rival and friend. “He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself. He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

Arnold Palmer was the embodiment of class, both on and off the golf course.

To today’s generation, the American was an avuncular legend of the game, the steadfast striker of the opening tee shot at The Masters, the creator of an eponymous drink and, moreover, the owner of immaculate manners and twinkling blue eyes. To his contemporaries, ‘The King’ was a remorseless winner of seven major championships, a style icon and the forerunner of modern golf; nevertheless, a paragon of politeness.    

Palmer passed away when the eyes of the golfing world were concentrated on the season-ending PGA Tour Championship, played at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. As if to symbolically highlight the transformation of the game, the tournament was won by a modern golfing megastar in Rory McIlroy, who also won the tour’s season-long points race, the FedEx Cup. Those two achievements netted the Northern Irishman US$1.5 million and US$10million respectively. 

Though Palmer, given his impeccable generosity, would perhaps have felt a tinge of embarrassment for grabbing the limelight from McIlroy, it was the passing of golf’s first true superstar who took the headlines come Monday morning. Needless to say, the current world number three paid due tribute to the man from Pennsylvania.    

"He was the most influential man in the history of golf,” said McIlroy.  “If it wasn’t for Arnold Palmer, we wouldn’t be playing for these obscene amounts of money we play for every week. I don’t think that anyone in any sport has left a legacy like he has. 

“It is incredible what he did - his character, charisma, everything about him.”

Though Palmer accrued US$1.8 million over a stellar 52-year PGA career – including becoming the first golfer to win US$1 million – it is eclipsed by his earning power off the course. Using a business brain as sharp as the creases in his trousers, he had commercial interests in golf apparel and equipment, cars, golf events and course design. And, most famously, there was his trademark iced tea, that last year did almost US$200 million in Stateside sales.

It was all enough to ensure that Palmer, who last played competitively in 2006 and won his last major championship in 1964, ended last year as the world’s third highest-paid retired athlete. According to Forbes, the 62-time PGA Tour winner amassed US$40 million in 2015; only retired basketball great Michael Jordan and former soccer star David Beckham brought in more.  

Though millionaire golfers are commonplace nowadays, it was unquestionably Palmer who set the model that all players now strive to emulate. The son of a club pro and green-keeper from the blue-collar state of Pennsylvania, he went on to accumulate an estimated net worth of US$675 million. To trace his career is to track the path of a commercial revolution.

Palmer came to prominence in the 1950s, which coincided with the sport being televised live. His Hollywood good looks and swashbuckling style of play translated well into the new medium. Furthermore, because he came from working-class roots, he was the first golfer to dispel the prior misconception that one had be of a certain class to be successful in the sport: he took the game from the country clubs of the affluent to the mainstream American. It was a socio-economic revolution whose significance has perhaps only been exceeded in golf by Tiger Woods in the mid-90s.

Palmer - who had a neat but not model swing - was arguably the first player to cherish yardage in his irons and woods. He won five major championships between 1960 and 1962. In that time, he was undeniably the preeminent force on the fairways and greens but he had already made considerable inroads into commercial avenues.    

In the late 1950s, Palmer teamed up with lawyer and college contemporary Mark McCormack, organising one-day golf exhibitions for professionals around the United States. McCormack would go on to set up the global sports management firm International Management Group (IMG), and Palmer was naturally signed up as its first client.

Between the two of them they completely shifted the goalposts in what an athlete’s commercial earnings and marketability could be: the first two years of the partnership saw the golfer’s personal endorsements rise from US$6,000 to US$500,000. McCormack, often touted as sport’s first super-agent, seized on Palmer’s everyman appeal and the burgeoning television market, securing advertising for companies such as Pennzoil and car rental chain Hertz.

Palmer’s three-year dominance came to an abrupt end when he ran into Jack Nicklaus, who would go onto win an unprecedented 18 career major championships, but a canny deal with equipment supplier Wilson afforded the golfer royalties on club sales. 

In 1961, as part of an overall business strategy, Arnold Palmer Enterprises - with its trademark multi-coloured golf umbrella, a suggestion by the man himself - was created, which then spawned Arnold Palmer Golf Co. By 1966, the golf arm was manufacturing 100,000 sets of clubs a year, all custom-designed by the man himself.  

Despite tournament victories becoming less frequent Palmer was still box office. He completed the ‘Big Three’ of golf with his IMG stablemates, Nicklaus and South Africa’s Gary Player. The three would combine in a television series, produced by McCormack, which played on their friendly rivalry and saw them pitted against each other in specially organised matches the world over.        

Following on from his success in producing golf equipment the Wake Forest College graduate moved into the apparel business when he created Arnold Palmer Leisurewear, which now has 400 stores worldwide. Not content with dominating one sector, he launched Arnold Palmer Designs - which has played a role in the development of 306 courses - curated a large real estate portfolio, and continued to endorse multiple products and services, including United Airlines, Cadillac cars, Rolex watches and E-Z-Go golf carts. 

Furthermore, Palmer had a ten per cent stake in IMG, which was sold to entertainment giant William Morris Endeavor in 2013 for US$2.4 billion.

‘The King’ continued to play golf, even piloting his own plane from tournament to tournament. He was passionately supported by his fervent, loyal fans - known as ‘Arnie's army’ - and in the autumn of his career he won his 62nd and final PGA Tour event, the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, by two strokes from long-term rival Nicklaus.

The waning in his golf talents allowed Palmer to sharpen his mind into his ever-expanding business empire. In doing so, he set the blueprint for a retired athlete’s second career.      

Palmer’s final contribution to the golfing world was, once again, established though television and his unique foresight in the platform. He co-founded The Golf Channel in 1995 with Alabama businessman Joe Gibbs. The round-the-clock dedicated channel was launched to much derision - and satirised as being boring - but like most ventures in Palmer’s life it proved to be popular and, of course, made the Pittsburgh native money. In 2000 the pair sold the channel to Comcast, and it became part of NBC Sports Group a year later when the Philadelphia-based media company merged with NBCUniversal.  According to specialist outlet, TV by the numbers, 68.1 per cent of households with televisions in the US have access to the channel in 2015. 

The two-time Ryder Cup captain may be but gone he certainly won’t be forgotten in the golfing fraternity because, as Tiger Woods put it: "He globalised our sport. He put it on the map, it was always emotional and he always competed. 

“He absolutely loved being Arnold Palmer. He just loved it. He was probably one of the most comfortable people in their own skin.”