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From Humble Roots, Arnold Palmer Changed How People Viewed His Sport


The death of Arnold Palmer marks the loss of a rare professional athlete who changed the way people viewed his sport. He came from humble roots to shine in a game associated with the well-to-do. He played with a vigor that reminded you that hitting a golf ball is in fact an athletic feat. He was a golden boy who attracted fans who adored him. Michael Bamberger joins us now. He's a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Welcome back.

MICHAEL BAMBERGER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the impact that Arnold Palmer had on the game of golf?

BAMBERGER: Well, he really redefined golf for American middle-class weekend athletes. It was a game that was considered off limits prior to Arnold. And because of Arnold and ever since, it's been a major leisure time activity for literally tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people. He also sold an enormous number of color TVs along the way. So Arnold's impact is immeasurable.

SIEGEL: But you say people thought it was off limits because they, like Arnold Palmer, came from working-class roots, and this was a game that people who belonged to country clubs played.

BAMBERGER: Arnold sort of made his first mark in golf by winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur in Detroit. He defeated someone who was from a prosperous Long Island family, and that sort of set the tone really for the rest of his career.

And even though there were certainly other golfers, including Ben Hogan, who he sort of replaced as America's leading golfer who also came from working-class humble origins, as you say, he did it with a verve and a style that was irresistible. He had an enormous amount of sex appeal that drew women to him in great numbers, but men live vicariously through that same charisma as well.

SIEGEL: Yes, his fans, Arnie's Army, were a phenomenon. He was a hugely popular athlete.

BAMBERGER: He was. And interestingly, Robert, he remained so long after his days as an athlete were over because he had a rare ability, like certain actors, like maybe a Tom Hanks or maybe like a George Clooney have to connect with people. He could connect with galleries in the thousands or be it a rubber chicken dinner with several hundred people there. And everyone had the feeling of connecting individually with every single individual person.

SIEGEL: In addition to being a great golfer and handsome athletic-looking guy, Arnold Palmer came across as a very sunny personality. Was that for real? In private was he that nice?

BAMBERGER: I wouldn't describe Arnold as nice. I would say that he was interesting and that he was truthful. I would say he was much darker in his private life because there were losses in golf that haunted him literally for the rest of his life. And most particularly he never won a PGA Championship which he needed to have completed the cycle of winning the four great major golf championships.

But also he had numerous opportunities, a half a dozen or more opportunities that he could tick them off rapid fire to win U.S. Opens, which was really the crown jewel to him of all golf championships. And he won in 1960.

And as he said, he never really could get back the deep aggressiveness that let him get into a gear to get the job done after he won that 1960 U.S. Open. So really everything he achieved after that 1960 Open did not really measure up for him because that was his grail, was that U.S. Open.

SIEGEL: Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated, thanks for talking with us about the late Arnold Palmer.

BAMBERGER: Robert, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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