Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game, passed away on September 25 at the age of 87 years old. Palmer is a classic American sports hero. One can safely argue that he is fundamentally responsible for the popularization of golf in America.
Think about some of our country’s great professional sports dynasties of recent years: UConn women’s basketball, New England Patriots football, and Alabama Crimson Tide football. All of these teams have enjoyed sustained success during the 21st century, capturing immortality so frequently it has become routine, even eye-roll worthy. Arnold Palmer’s individual dynasty is arguably more impressive than all of those teams. Palmer was nothing short of perfect in the early 1960’s. He won five out of the 12 major golf tournaments from 1960-1962, finishing in second place in three out of those 12.
During that three-year span, he played 73 PGA events, missing the cut in a tournament twice and winning 22 tournaments in total. As a scale of reference, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus both won 19 events during their most dominant three-year periods (2000-2002 for Woods and 1971-1973 for Nicklaus).
Palmer’s legacy goes beyond the fresh-cut grass of the fairways. Obviously we all know about the beverage he pioneered – the sweet yet smooth flavor of mixing iced tea and lemonade. What people don’t know is just how significant the drink is and how culturally pervasive Palmer’s identity has become.
In the late 60’s, Palmer began making the
challenging transition from the golf world into the business world. His first venture was a natural one: build an empire of gold courses around the country. When planning a course in Palm Springs, he sat down for lunch and asked a waitress for a mixture of iced tea and lemonade, preferably one-third lemonade and two-thirds iced tea. Nearby customers recognized Palmer and ordered the same drink. Over the years, with the help of “Arnie’s Army” (his own certified section of superfans), the “Arnold Palmer” beverage became commonplace in eateries and kitchens around the world.
If you go into any gas station or convenience store, look no further than the main beverage refrigerator and you will see his delightfully jolly face on an Arizona can. His iconic drink has done as much for the beverage world as he has for the golf world.
Never have we seen an American athlete transcend his sport in such a way that he is referenced in everyday life and pop-culture like an improper noun: “Bee-yoo! Bee-yoo! Bee-yoo! Arnold Palmer alert! Who wants some Arnie Palmies???” (The Other Guys, 2010). Current icons of American sports, like LeBron James and Antonio Brown, have saluted Palmer’s legacy on and off the course with stylish shoes. Popular TV shows like “30 Rock,” “Scrubs” and “The Sopranos” have also paid homage to the golf legend in a variety of ways. The Beastie Boys even have a song on their farewell album called “Like Sipping Lemonade and Arnold Palmers.”
Palmer’s legacy is unmatched in the modern era of American sport. Palmer’s brand on and off the course was instrumental to the rise of golf to the popularity it has today. He, Nicklaus and Gary Player’s dominance in the mid-20th century is easily discernable as golf’s initiation into American culture. Since then, it has been a wildly popular sport for Americans of all ages. Everything he contributed to the game of golf – popularity, sportsmanship, confidence and most of all, kindness – will resonate in this nation for decades to come. Rest easy, Mr. Palmer.