Arnold Palmer: King of the Course and Pitch!

By Budgets & Balls Archives
Cover image for  article: Arnold Palmer: King of the Course and Pitch!

As you watch the Ryder Cup from Hazeltine National as part of your sports weekend, remember Arnold Palmer.

Palmer, who passed on Sept. 25 at the age of 87 from heart complications, was a Ryder Cup stalwart, a two-time captain and played in six of the biennial events, winning 22 matches -- the most ever by an American.  Players from the U.S. and European sides are wearing pins in his honor.

The influence of the man known as "The King" manifests in all of the athlete-endorser ads you'll see on the golf, baseball, football and other sports telecasts this weekend -- think Peyton Manning's pitches for DirecTV, Nationwide and Papa John’s.

Following a three-year tour of duty in the Coast Guard, Palmer teed off his Hall of Fame golf career by winning his first pro tournament, the Canadian Open, in 1955. But Palmer really burst onto the scene and American consciousness a few years later.  He captured all seven of his majors from 1958 through 1964 and came up a few strokes short in others.

His ascendancy coincided with the rise of television.  Palmer's attacking style (demanded by his father Deke, a golf pro in Latrobe, Pa.), good looks and everyman sensibility drove golf's appeal beyond the country club set. His rivalries with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player -- the Big Three -- popularized the sport.

I never got to see Palmer at the peak of his go-for-broke powers, but my father, who instructed me as a youngster that Nicklaus was the better player, nonetheless enlisted in Arnie's Army. A friend of mine, a native southern Californian, told me his favorite sports memory as a youth was not of watching Sandy Koufax dominate for the Dodgers or Lance Alworth electrify for the Chargers, but Palmer on the move at The Riviera Country Club.

Palmer's on-course prowess was amplified, though, by Mark McCormack, the pioneering sports agent, who found the International Management Group. Together they ushered in the new world of sports marketing. Palmer's affability and ability led to an array of deals over the years, including Pennzoil, United Airlines, Hertz, Coca-Cola and Xarelto. His legendary mix of iced tea and lemonade, the Arnold Palmer, lives on in stores through a deal with AriZona Beverage Co.

The public's embrace of Palmer far outlasted his time as a top player, the last of 62 PGA Tour victories recorded in 1973. Forbes ranked Palmer, 28 years removed from the last of his 10 Senior PGA Tour titles, as the third-highest-paid retired athlete in 2016. His $40 million -- fueled in part by the deal with AriZona and his ownership of Bay Hill golf resort -- trailed only Michael Jordan and David Beckham.  Palmer, whose legacy also includes the 300 golf courses he helped design and develop, only earned $1.8 million in winnings during his PGA career.

While Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, Jim Palmer, Julius Erving and Magic Johnson followed in Palmer's national endorsement footsteps, it wasn't until Jordan -- with an assist from Spike Lee's Mars Blackmon character and Phil Knight's checkbook in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- that athletic endorsement ads began to follow the path trod decades earlier by Palmer.  Jordan, now the owner of the NBA Charlotte Hornets, still pulls out his annual spots for Hanes and Jordan XXXI sneakers were released on Sept. 3.

Manning's retirement after his Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 is front and center of creative of campaigns for Nationwide, DirecTV and Papa John’s. LeBron James has a number of endorsement deals of his own (including a $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike), a television production company (Spring Hill) with series on Starz (Survivor's Remorse) and CNBC (Cleveland Hustles) and is currently developing a Space Jam reprise with Warner Bros. The King of golf would be proud of The King of the hardwood's diversified interests.

Palmer's profile and portfolio can be viewed as a primer for all athletes looking to maintain/further their brand after the sunset of their playing days.  Of course, advertising was not the only club Palmer pulled from his TV bag. While ESPN is credited with creating the 24/7 sports cycle, Palmer, along with Joe Gibbs, now the former Washington Redskins coach and NASCAR team owner, brought the dedicated sports channel to the dial.  Golf Channel, aided by cable operators, including Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, himself a member at Augusta National, launched in 1995. It was the forerunner to Tennis Channel and league-owned services from the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

How long those entities will last in a digital age that is reshaping the media landscape and habits that could lead to direct-to-consumer distribution of the games we love remains to be seen.  Palmer's legacy, though, seems certain to endure.  His is a grand American story, a tale of how hard work, perseverance, talent and good timing brought the son of a golf pro to worldwide acclaim and fame.

Palmer's passing has inspired a litany of moving farewells from myriad notables he touched in some way.

"He was and likely will remain the most important golfer of all time," said Golf Channel president Mike McCarley (pictured above left with Palmer). "He will be remembered for popularizing the game of golf and revolutionizing the business of sport, but for those who were lucky enough to meet him, they will always remember how special he made them feel.  He was always genuine and generous with his time, no matter if the cameras were rolling or not."

Palmer was as advertised:  Astute, respectful, earnest and nice, a true gentleman. I can see why so many called him The King. Long may he reign on that course in the sky.

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of management or associated bloggers. Photos courtesy of Golf Channel. 

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