Arnold Palmer, Golf’s First Major Superstar, Dies at 87

Golfer Arnold Palmer, whose skill and swashbuckling style made him one of the biggest stars in the sport and a beloved figure to the general public, died Sunday. He was 87.

The United States Golf Association tweeted the news on Sunday, after Golf Digest first reported Palmer’s death. His longtime assistant told the Washington Post that Palmer died at a Pittsburgh hospital ahead of a planned heart surgery.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87,” wrote the USGA.

A talented athlete who garnered generations of fans, becoming a star just as TV was able to document it, Palmer remained involved in the golf world up until his death. Along with winning seven majors and playing the Masters for 50 consecutive years, Palmer also co-founded the Golf Channel, the first cable network devoted a single sport.

Palmer was notably the first client of Mark McCormack’s sports management firm, IMG, now WME/IMG. The legend has it that the two shook hands on a representation agreement in 1960 which allowed McCormack to build the sports agency powerhouse. Palmer remained a client until his death and IMG will continues handle business and licensing operations for his estate.

“Arnold Palmer set the standard for athletes in life and in business with his passion, charisma, and dedication,” said WME/IMG co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. “We will forever remember him as IMG’s first client and a man who profoundly shaped the modern-day sports industry. On behalf of all of our employees and partners, we send our deepest condolences to Arnold’s family, friends and fans.”

Palmer’s longtime IMG rep, Alastair Johnson, cited his influence and achievements notched far beyond the golf course. “He was an iconic American who treated people with respect and warmth, and built a unique legacy through his ability to engage with fans,” Johnson said.

A native of Latrobe, Pa., Palmer won the Masters four times, the British Open twice and the U.S. Open once between 1958 and 1962. He racked up 62 wins on the PGA tour. His nickname on the circuit and among fans was simply “the King.”

Though he never won the PGA Championship, he finished as runner-up three times. All in all, the Wake Forest alum nabbed 95 professional golf titles over his long career, and was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

A friend to fellow athletes and presidents alike, he received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2009, after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 from President George W. Bush. He appeared at the Masters for his 50th time, his last, in 2004, and retired from professional golf two years later.

Aside from his athlete prowess, Palmer, with his charm and style, became a businessman and million-dollar brand name. Many will remember him for the eponymous drink, a mixture of tea and lemonade. He also spearheaded the Orlando, Fla.-based Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation that supports a range of organizations focused on aiding children, the environment and supporting health and wellness efforts.

Palmer is survived by his second wife, Kit; two daughters, six grandchildren including Sam Saunders who plays on the PGA tour. He is also survived by a brother and two sisters.

President Barack Obama released a statement on Monday “saluting” the late golf star.

With his homemade swing and homespun charm, Arnold Palmer had swagger before we had a name for it. From a humble start working at the local club in his beloved Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to superstardom as the face of golf around the globe, Arnold was the American Dream come to life.

Along the way he racked up win after win – but it wasn’t his success that made him King. Arnold’s freewheeling, fearless approach to the game inspired a generation of golfers and, for the first time on TV, enthralled an audience across the world. Sure, we liked that he won seven majors, but we loved that he went for it when he probably should have laid up.

That spirit extended beyond the links where he gave freely of himself and poured everything he had into everything he did: from building hospitals to personally responding to countless letters from his fans. And he did it all with a grin that hinted maybe he had one more shot up his sleeve.

Today, Michelle and I stand with Arnie’s Army in saluting the King.

The golf world was quick to grieve Palmer’s death, taking to social media to express condolences. Tiger Woods thanked the late legend for “friendship, counsel and a lot of laughs.” “Your philanthropy and humility are part of your legend,” he added.” See more reactions below.

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