Arnold Palmer, golf's first superstar in the age of television, dies at 87

Arnold Palmer, the gentleman golfer from Latrobe, Pa., whose thrilling, go-for-broke style made him the first television superstar of his sport and earned him generations of devoted fans, has died, according to Golf Digest. He was 87.

The beloved Palmer, who was the first client of Mark McCormack's legendary sports management firm IMG and later co-founded the Golf Channel, the first cable network devoted to one sport, died Sunday. Further details were not immediately available.

Palmer appeared noticeably more frail in March when he served as host of his annual PGA tournament held at his Bay Hill Club & Lodge outside Orlando. A few days earlier, he said he would no longer hit the ceremonial first tee shot at The Masters, which he had done every year since 2007.

The charismatic Palmer captured seven major tournaments during his illustrious career, taking The Masters four times (in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964), the British Open twice (in 1961 and 1962) and the U.S. Open once (in 1960, when he rallied from seven strokes down in the final round to storm past an aging Ben Hogan and a young Jack Nicklaus).

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Arnold Palmer through the years
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Arnold Palmer through the years
Arnold Palmer. June 11, 1959. (Photo by Anthony Calvacca/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
Arnold Palmer. April 15, 1967. (Photo by Arty Pomerantz/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Arnold Palmer (left) and Robert Sweeny, who won their semi-final matches today in the National Amateur Golf Championship, smile as they hold the trophy one of them will take home tomorrow. Palmer, of Wickliffe, Ohio, eliminated Edward Meister on the 39th hole by one up after nearly eight hours of play. Sweeny, of Port Washington, New York, beat Dr. Ted Lenczyk, 5 and 4. The winners meet tomorrow in the finals.
Arnold Palmer. July 23, 1971. (Photo by William N. Jacobellis/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
Arnold Palmer follows a putt. August 22, 1974. (Photo by William N. Jacobellis/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
Lanny Wadkins and Arnold Palmer have a laugh at the Met Golf Writers' dinner. February 20, 1973. (Photo by Vernon Shibla/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
Arnold Palmer. August 23, 1974. (Photo by William N. Jacobellis/New York Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1990's: Golf: Arnold Palmer in action during tournament play early circa 1990's. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
NAPA, CA - OCTOBER 21: Arnold Palmer competes in the 1990 Transamerica Senior Golf Championship event of the Senior PGA Tour on October 21, 1990 at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, California. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)
NAPA, CA - OCTOBER 21: Arnold Palmer competes in the 1990 Transamerica Senior Golf Championship event of the Senior PGA Tour on October 21, 1990 at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, California. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 23: Arnold Palmer during the 51st Senior PGA Championship held at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. April 12-15, 1990. (photograph by The PGA of America). (Photo by Jeff McBride/PGA of America via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 24: Arnold Palmer during the 51st Senior PGA Championship held at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. April 12-15, 1990. (photograph by The PGA of America). (Photo by Jeff McBride/PGA of America via Getty Images)
1990: Arnold Palmer watches his shot during the 1990 RMCC Invitational at the Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Dunn /Allsport
30 Jun 2000: Arnold Palmer takes a chunk out of the course during the U.S. Senior Open at the Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons /Allsport
Former Masters champion Arnold Palmer gives a thumbs up to fans along the ninth hole of the Par 3 Contest ahead of the 2014 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia April 9, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT GOLF)
Legendary golfer Arnold Palmer holds the hand and smiles at Tracey Stewart (L), widow of golfer Payne Stewart, after being announced as one of three recipients of the first Payne Stewart Award at the 18th green at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta November 1, 2000. The award will be given annually to a player sharing Stewart's commitment to the game and charitable support. Stewart was killed in a plane crash in October 25, 1999. TLC
Former Masters champion Arnold Palmer of the U.S. prepares to hit his drive during the ceremonial start of the 2014 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT GOLF)
Honorary starter US golfer Arnold Palmer greets fans as he arrives to begin Round 1 of the 80th Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2016, in Augusta, Georgia. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Honorary Starter Arnold Palmer gives the thumbs up to fans as they applaud at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2016 Augusta, Ga. Palmer along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were Honorary Starts for The Masters. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20: Arnold Palmer watches action on the 18th green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20: Arnold Palmer gives a thumbs up following Jason Day's one stroke victory on the 18th hole green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Cy Cyr/PGA TOUR)
Arnold Palmer of the U.S. waves to the crowd as he stands on the 18th green during the Champion Golfers' Challenge tournament ahead of the British Open golf championship on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, July 15, 2015. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne
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He never won golf's final major, the PGA Championship, finishing second three times, and had spectacular flame-outs, like when he blew a seven-shot lead in the final nine holes at the 1966 U.S. Open before falling in a playoff the following day. It was one of his four runner-up finishes at the Open.

Palmer, though, did win 62 times on the PGA Tour — including 29 times in his heyday of 1960-63, an era when color was coming to televisions across America. Audiences loved watching the swashbuckling Palmer, whose style was to swing as hard as he could on every full shot.

"He was the perfect figure for television, because of his athleticism, his good looks, the way he played the game," his biographer, Jim Dodson (A Golfer's Life), said. "He created the excitement that TV symbolized. It was immediate, it was fresh. It could take people right to the scene in ways media had never done."

His fervent fans became known as Arnie's Army, and he made it a point to sign each and every autograph for them with perfect penmanship. "What's the point of signing something if the person can't read it or later can't even remember who it was?" he often said.

In a game that is often elitist, he was never so.

In 1960, Palmer shook hands with McCormack to become the first client of International Management Group. The two had known each other from college, when Palmer competed for Wake Forest and McCormack played for William & Mary.

In Palmer's first few years with McCormack, his annual endorsement earnings grew from $6,000 to $500,000, and the golfer became a global "brand," one of the first in the annals of sports. He endorsed motor oil (Pennzoil), rental cars (Hertz), automobiles (Cadillac), airlines (Quantas, United), sunglasses (Ray-Ban), tractors, cardigans, after-dinner jackets, aftershave lotions — and much, much more.

Plus, he had his own drink, the Arnold Palmer, a half-and-half combination of iced tea and lemonade that he mixed in his kitchen for years. His company has been selling its own brand since 2001, and a commercial showing him dispensing one in an ESPN cafeteria was a very popular SportsCenter spot.

The Arnold Palmer "goes well with everything from a cheeseburger to a liverwurst sandwich to a cup of soup," he once said.

In yet another savvy business move, the athlete and Alabama entrepreneur Joseph E. Gibbs secured $80 million in financing to launch the 24-hour-a-day Golf Channel. It went on the air on Jan. 17, 1995, and five years later, Comcast acquired control of the network after Palmer cashed out.

He also had a thriving golf course-designing business and piloted his own plane.

Arnold Daniel Palmer was born Sept. 10, 1929, in Latrobe, a modest suburb in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father was a steelworker who became a greenskeeper and then the club professional at the Latrobe Country Club, and Palmer began playing golf at age 4 and driving the club's tractor at 7.

He attended Latrobe High School and Wake Forest — his college career was interrupted by a three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard — and then won the U.S. Amateur tournament in 1954 at age 19.

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Notable people we lost in 2016
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Notable people we lost in 2016

January 4 -- Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees and Cream.

(Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

January 4 -- Country singer Craig Strickland was found dead at age 29 from hypothermia.

(Photo via Instagram)

January 6 -- Pat Harrington, Jr., actor in 'One Day at a Time,' died at 86 from complications from Alzheimer's disease.

(Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

January 14 -- Actor Alan Rickman, popular for playing Professor Snape in the 'Harry Potter' films, died at 69 after battling cancer.

(Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage)

January 18 -- Glenn Frey, founding member of The Eagles, died at age 67 due to complications from multiple ailments.

(Photo by Tommaso Boddi/WireImage)

February 2 -- Jibri Bryan, #34, of the Mercer Bears was killed in a shooting at age 23.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

February 4 -- Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, died from the effects of Parkinson's disease at age 74.

(Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

February 4 -- Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the moon, passed away at 85 under hospice care.

(Photo via NASA)

March 9 -- Beatles producer Sir George Martin passed away at age 90, as announced by Ringo Starr on Twitter.

(Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

March 16 -- Singer Frank Sinatra Jr.

(Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

March 29 -- Oscar winning actress Patty Duke, at the age of 69.

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 
Actor Tommy Ford passed on October 12, he was 52 years old. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images)

Agnes Nixon the creator of 'All my children' left us on September 28th at the age of 93.

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Darrell Ward the star of 'Ice Road Truckers' life was taken in a plane crash, he was 52 years old. 
Popular voice actor Jack Riley passed on August 19th. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
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The chain-smoking, up-and-down Palmer was fun to watch even then, as Sports Illustrated described in its coverage of the event at the Detroit Country Club: "Throughout the tournament, Palmer would play four or five holes in a row with great authority. Then he would erase the impression that he is almost as finished a shot-maker as Gene Littler was a year ago by smothering a drive or bumbling unsurely with an explosion shot. He is a sound putter and above all a player of tremendous determination."

A few months later, Palmer made his Masters debut, his first of a record 50 consecutive appearances at the event. When he won in Augusta, Ga., for the first time in 1958, the golfer with forearms like a prize fighter was a big hit with the soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon who had come in for free to help run the scoreboards. It was there that Arnie's Army was born.

"I'm flattered by the fact that people want to talk to me or shake hands with me or get an autograph," he told Esquire in 2014. "I feel flattered that they want that. And I try to do all I can to accommodate."

President Dwight Eisenhower considered him a son, and when Palmer was dominating in the 1960s, the number of players in the U.S. doubled to 10 million and a new course in America was built just about every day for 10 straight years. He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods.

"The King" also was instrumental in the success of the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) for players 50 years and older. He became eligible in its first year (that timing was not a coincidence) and won 10 times on the circuit before retiring from tournament golf in October 2006.

One of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, Palmer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

His wife of 45 years, Winnie, died in November 1999 at age 65 of ovarian cancer. He married Kathleen "Kit" Gawthrop in 2005; survivors also include two daughters and a grandson, Sam Saunders, who plays on the PGA Tour.

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