Kansas City golf legend Tom Watson turned his television to the Golf Channel on Sunday night, wanting to hear about the death of another great of the game, Arnold Palmer.
Palmer, one of the most famous players in the history of the sport, had died hours earlier in Pittsburgh. He was 87.
“He really was The King,” Watson said, referring to Palmer’s nickname.
“He treated people with respect. He had a great sense of humor and was a very patient man. He was like a father figure to me.”
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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Palmer died at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been undergoing heart tests since last Thursday.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87,” the USGA said on its Twitter page.
Palmer became a superstar in the 1950s and developed a rivalry with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — they became known as “The Big Three.” He finished with 62 wins on the PGA Tour and added 10 more wins on the Senior tour.
Palmer’s record included wins at the Masters in 1958, ’60, ’62 and ’64. He also won the U.S. Open in 1960 and the British Open in 1961 and ’62.
Palmer, who was born in Latrobe, Penn., attended Wake Forest University on a golf scholarship and first earned national attention by winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit.
But Palmer’s influence on golf went far beyond his record. He emerged on the scene when TV had just begun covering golf and helped develop the sport into a million-dollar industry thanks to his charismatic personality and the way he connected fans. Arnie’s Army was behind the fairways everywhere he played.
“He was a man of the people,” Watson said. “They loved him.”
Tiger Woods, the sport’s current top star, said Palmer meant everything to golf.
“I mean, without his charisma, without his personality in conjunction with TV — it was just the perfect symbiotic growth,” Woods said. You finally had someone who had this charisma, and they’re capturing it on TV for the very first time.
“Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold.”
After he retired from the game, Palmer was active in charitable events and served as a mentor to other golfers. He regularly sent hand-written letters to each PGA Tour weekly winner, mementos young golfers said they treasured.
In 2012, Palmer became the sixth athlete to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, joining the likes of Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens, Joe Louis and Byron Nelson. Nicklaus, who became a close friend of Palmer’s in later years even as their on-course rivalry became a battle of their business empires, received the honor in 2015.
“I’m particularly proud of anything the House and Senate agree on,” Palmer said at the ceremony, tongue in cheek. The measure passed 422-1 in the House and 100-0 in the Senate.
Watson recalled that Palmer found time to join him five out of 25 years that Watson held the annual Children’s Mercy Hospital Golf Classic. However, their first encounter came when Watson was just 15 years old.
Palmer had come to town for an exhibition at Brookridge Golf & Country Club. Watson and Player shot 34 on the front nine during that encounter, but Palmer ended up beating him by 6 shots.
Palmer offered some advice that day to Watson that Watson has since passed on others.
“My dad (Raymond) asked him one question. He said, ‘What one thing could help Tommy succeed,’ ” Watson said. “Arnold said, ‘Play in as much competition as he can.’ When people ask me that question, I tell them exactly what Arnold told my dad.”
Star news services contributed to this report.