Golfing legend Arnold Palmer died Sunday afternoon at the age of 87, his longtime spokesman and friend, Doc Giffin, told ESPN.
According to Palmer’s longtime agent, Alastair Johnston, Palmer died of complications from heart problems. Johnston said Palmer was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian on Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the past few days.
“I’m just so heartbroken about it,” Giffin said. “As much as Arnold Palmer meant to the world, he meant that much and more to me.”
Complete coverage: Remembering Arnold Palmer
A look back at the legendary career of “The King,” Arnold Palmer, including his impact on and off the golf course, and reaction from around the sports world.
Palmer left an imprint on everyone he met
Arnold Palmer epitomized the word “legend” in so many ways, not the least of which was his personal interaction with everyday people.
Sports world reacts to passing of golf legend Arnold Palmer
Golfing icon Arnold Palmer died at 87 on Sunday, and sports figures reflected on their best memories with “The King.”
Palmer, who was nicknamed “The King,” won seven major championships during his professional career, which spanned more than five decades. He won the Masters four times, The Open twice and the U.S. Open once.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador,” the United States Golf Association said in a statement. “Arnold Palmer will always be a champion, in every sense of the word. He inspired generations to love golf by sharing his competitive spirit, displaying sportsmanship, caring for golfers and golf fans, and serving as a lifelong ambassador for the sport.
“Our stories of him not only fill the pages of golf’s history books and the walls of the museum, but also our own personal golf memories. The game is indeed better because of him, and in so many ways, will never be the same.”
Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children. His father, Deacon, became the greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club in 1921 and the club pro in 1933.
Palmer began his professional career in 1954 and quickly picked up his first PGA Tour win at the 1955 Canadian Open in his rookie season, and his first-round 64 then remained the best opening round of his career.
He would go on to win 62 titles on the PGA Tour, the fifth-highest total of all time, and 92 including international and senior victories. He was PGA Player of the Year twice (1960 and ’62) and the tour’s leading money winner four times, with total tournament earnings of nearly $7 million.
Beyond his golf, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for scores of other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. Some four decades after his last PGA Tour win, he ranked among the highest earners in golf.
“There is no way to adequately express the immense sense of loss that we all feel with this news,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement sent to tour members. “It is not an exaggeration to say there would be no modern day PGA Tour without Arnold Palmer. There would be no PGA Tour Champions without Arnold Palmer. There would be no Golf Channel without Arnold Palmer. … The fact that his popularity never waned more than a quarter century after his last competitive victory speaks volumes to the man, the icon and the legendary figure he was.”
Nicklaus said in a statement. “We just lost one of the incredible people in the game of golf and in all of sports.”
Nicklaus said he last spoke to Palmer on his birthday, Sept. 10, and that Palmer “sounded great.”
“It’s hard to believe that Arnold has passed, and I’m deeply saddened by his loss,” Woods said in a statement. “He meant so much to the game and to me personally. I knew that I could always call him for advice, and I looked forward to seeing him at Bay Hill and the Masters. Arnold touched so many people. My kids were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women Babies, and his philanthropic work will be remembered along with his accomplishments in golf.
“It was an honor and privilege to have known Arnold, and I’m forever grateful for his friendship.”
Palmer developed a rivalry and lifelong friendship with Nicklaus and Gary Player, and the trio eventually became known as the “Big Three.” They won seven straight Masters titles among them from 1960 to 1966 and hit ceremonial tee shots together at Augusta National to signal the start of the year’s first major. Palmer hit his first ceremonial tee shot at Augusta in 2007; Nicklaus joined him in 2010, and Player was added in 2012.
But Palmer slowed down in 2016 and was unable to hit his ceremonial Masters tee shot, though he did take part in the ceremony. He also did not hold his traditional pre-tourney news conference for his own tournament at Bay Hill.
Palmer’s first Masters victory was in 1958, the first year soldiers from Camp Gordon were offered free admission at Augusta and helped run the scoreboards. Palmer, with his charisma, won over the soldiers and just about everyone else, and “Arnie’s Army” took root.
Perhaps his greatest victory came at Colorado’s Cherry Hills Country Club in 1960, when he won his only U.S. Open title. Trailing by seven shots entering the final round, Palmer birdied six of the first seven holes en route to a final-round 65. At the time, it represented the lowest final-round score by a U.S. Open champion, and remains the largest 54-hole deficit overcome to win the tournament, according to ESPN Stats Information. Palmer would go on to lose three more U.S. Opens in a playoff, the most playoff losses in U.S. Open history.
It was Palmer who gave golf the modern version of the Grand Slam — winning all four professional majors in one year. He came up with the idea after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960. Palmer was runner-up at the British Open, later calling it one of the biggest disappointments of his career. But his appearance alone invigorated the British Open, which Americans had been ignoring for years.
Palmer never won the PGA Championship, one major short of capturing a career Grand Slam.
But then, the standard he set went beyond trophies. It was the way he treated people, looking everyone in the eye with a smile and a wink. He signed every autograph, making sure it was legible. He made every fan feel like an old friend.
For non-golf fans, Palmer may be best known for the drink named after him, after he ordered his favorite concoction of iced tea and lemonade at a restaurant. A woman overheard him, said she would have the same thing, and the “Arnold Palmer” was born.
Said Nicklaus: “Arnold transcended the game of golf. 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. … We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed.
“He was the king of our sport and always will be.”
Palmer is predeceased by his first wife, Winnie, and survived by his second wife, Kit; his daughters, Amy (Roy) Saunders and Peggy (Stewart) Bryan; six grandchildren; numerous great-grandchildren; his brother, Jerry; and sisters, Sandra Sarni and Lois “Cheech” Tilly.
Details on a memorial service and burial will be announced later.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.