Golf legend Arnold Palmer dead at 87

Golf legend Arnold Palmer died Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh of complications from heart problems. He was 87.

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Alastair Johnson, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, confirmed Palmer's death. Johnston said Palmer was admitted to the UPMC Hospital on Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the last few days.

"Today marks the passing of an era," said Johnston, Palmer's longtime agent at IMG. "Arnold Palmer's influence, profile and achievements spread far beyond the game of golf. He was an iconic American who treated people with respect and warmth, and built a unique legacy through his ability to engage with fans."

>> Sports world pays tribute to Arnold Palmer, dead at 87

Palmer ranked among the most important figures in golf history, and it went far beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour victories. His good looks, devilish grin and go-for-broke manner made the elite sport appealing to "Arnie's Army," golf fans and others. And it helped that he arrived about the same time as television moved into most households, a perfect fit that sent golf to unprecedented popularity.

>> PHOTOS: Arnold Palmer through the years

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.

"Thanks Arnold for your friendship, counsel and a lot of laughs," Tiger Woods tweeted Sunday night. "Your philanthropy and humility are part of your legend. It's hard to imagine golf without you or anyone more important to the game than the King."

He would hitch up his pants, drop a cigarette and attack the flags. With powerful hands wrapped around the golf club, Palmer would slash at the ball with all of his might, then twist that muscular neck and squint to see where it went.

"When he hits the ball, the earth shakes," Gene Littler once said.

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Palmer was part of golf's "Big Three," with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. His last PGA Tour title came in the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He won four times at the Masters, twice at the British Open and had one victory at the U.S. Open. The only major to elude him was the PGA Championship, where he was runner-up three times. He finished second in the U.S. Open four times and was inducted into theWorld Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

Palmer was named "Athlete of the Decade" for the 1960s in a national Associated Press poll. Palmer, who helped found the Golf Channel decades later, also helped during the formative years of  the Champions Tour, where he won 10 times, including five majors.

"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," PGA Tour Commisioner Tim Finchem said in a statement.

On the golf course, Palmer was an icon not for how often he won, but the way he did it.

Palmer's lone victory at the U.S. Open came in 1960 at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colorado. Palmer erased a seven-stroke deficit on the final day, shooting a final-round 65 to defeat Nicklaus by two shots. Six years later, he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine to lose the U.S. Open to Billy Casper.

Palmer won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour four times, played on six Ryder Cup teams and captained the team twice. He said that the turning point in his career came when he won the 1954 U.S. Amateur title at the Country Club of Detroit.

The USGA tweeted that "we are deeply saddened" by Palmer's death, calling him "golf's greatest ambassador."

"I'm pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint," Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. "I would like to think that I left them more than just that."

"Arnie's Army," began at Augusta National with a small group of soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, and grew to include a legion of fans from every corner of the globe.

Palmer stopped playing the Masters in 2004 and hit the ceremonial tee shot every year until 2016, when age began to take a toll and he struggled with his balance.

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.

Palmer never liked being referred to as "The King," but the name stuck.

Nicklaus tweeted that he was "shocked to hear that we lost a great friend."

Palmer was equally successful off with golf course design, a wine collection, and apparel that included his famous logo of an umbrella. He bought the Bay Hill Club & Lodge upon making his winter home in Orlando, Florida, and in 2007 the PGA Tour changed the name of the tournament to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children. His father, Deacon (who Palmer called Pap), became the greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club in 1921 and the club pro in 1933.

Palmer joined the PGA Tour in 1955 and won the Canadian Open for the first of his 62 titles. 

Tom Callahan once described the difference between Nicklaus and Palmer this way: It's as though God said to Nicklaus, "You will have skills like no other," then whispered to Palmer, "But they will love you more."

Only four other players won more PGA Tour events than Palmer — Sam Snead, Nicklaus and Woods.

Palmer's first wife, Winnie, died in 1999. They had two daughters, and his grandson Sam Saunders plays on the PGA Tour. Palmer married Kathleen (Kit) Gawthrop in 2005.

Palmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 by President George W. Bush. He has written several books, and a new one, A Life Well Played: My Stories, is scheduled for an October 25 release by St. Martin's Press. He revealed his secret for longevity, writing in his last book that "I can honestly say that my work ethic has been one key to living a long and happy life."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.


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