Pittsburgh: Arnold Palmer’s western Pennsylvania roots ran deep.
While his home town of Latrobe helped the golf great bring a blue-collar charisma to a gentleman’s game, it hardly limited him. The man credited with bringing his sport to the masses had no problem serving as its unofficial ambassador as well.
Augusta, Georgia. Orlando, Florida. Winston-Salem, North Carolina. La Quinta, California. Troon, Scotland. Any 19th hole that serves a blend of lemonade and iced tea (Palmer’s own creation) following a round. The top ranking officer in “Arnie’s Army” made his presence felt worldwide. And golf was all the better for it.
Palmer’s death in Pittsburgh on Sunday at 87 left a void that will be impossible to fill. It’s only fitting that tributes poured in from all over the globe considering Palmer’s pivotal role in taking golf to places it has never been. His rise to fame in the late 1950s coincided with the advent of televised sports, giving golf a handsome face (and a brash, remarkable talent) to beam into living rooms worldwide.
For all his globe-trotting, however, Palmer never really left home. He maintained a residence in Latrobe throughout his life, not far from the airport that now sports his name and the golf course where he learned to play as a young boy. The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport sits in the heart of the town, not that far from Arnold Palmer Motors or Latrobe Country Club, where the seven-time major champion could still be found during the occasional lazy summer day.
Those humble beginnings gave Palmer the foundation and stability he needed to hone his game while also doubling as a launching pad to unprecedented heights. He became a college star at Wake Forest during the late 1940s, winning an NCAA championship in 1949 and after a break for a stint in the Coast Guard, returned to win the ACC championship in 1954 while crediting the university for teaching him “things I had no idea existed in the world.” His imprint on the university is massive. There’s a residence hall and a golf complex named after him as well as a 9-foot statue of Palmer and his swashbuckling swing in its prime.
“No alumnus ever has had a bigger impact on Wake Forest University as an ambassador, role model, benefactor and friend than Arnold Palmer,” Wake Forest President Nathan O. Hatch said on the school’s web site
Hatch might as well have been speaking about the world in general. While many of his peers on the PGA Tour opted against competing in the British Open for a variety of reasons (mostly due to the expense of travelling overseas for a pittance in prize money), Palmer made it a priority.
“You couldn’t be a champion without playing in the Open and hopefully winning the Open,” he said in 2010 .
Something Palmer managed to do in consecutive years in 1961 and 1962, his triumphs giving the tournament credibility in the US and serving as a challenge for his countrymen to get their passport stamped and join him.
By then Palmer was already his sport’s biggest star, his breakout moment coming at the 1958 Masters when soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon adopted Palmer and roared as he captured the first of his four green jackets as Masters champion. Palmer playing at Augusta National was an annual rite for spring for 50 years and he served as an honorary starter following his retirement from the tournament in 2004.
Palmer’s empire continued to expand long after his playing days. He helped make Orlando a golf mecca by remaking the Bay Hill Club (which holds an annual PGA Tour he hosted) and serving as co-founder of the Golf Channel, now a cable TV staple more than 20 years after its debut.
He was bi-coastal too, buying a home in La Quinta and opening an eponymous restaurant in 2004, a place that where there’s a “Masters Room” and a “British Open” room, the menu includes western Pennsylvania staples meatloaf and pot roast and a putting green off the patio.
Yet for all his jet-setting— Palmer was a certified pilot for over half a century— something about Latrobe always drew him back. His interests were varied. His impact unparalleled. Yet in some ways he was always the young man who watched the first official airmail pickup in 1939 at the airport that would later bear his name: eyes wide with possibility while his feet remained firmly planted on the ground.