You know about “Arnie’s Army.” The charging style. The four green jackets. The “Arnold Palmer” beverage. The seven majors. Driving the green at Cherry Hills. The playoff defeats. The iconic signature. The 62 PGA Tour titles. The rivalry and friendship with Jack Nicklaus. Flying his own plane, designing golf courses, founding hospitals.
But here are a few things you might not have known about Arnold Palmer on what would have been his 90th birthday.
He won three ACC titles at Wake Forest but dropped out of school after his roommate, Bud Worsham, was killed in a 1951 car accident. Palmer joined the Coast Guard, where he stayed for three years before returning to competitive golf in 1954 and winning the U.S. Amateur. He turned pro later that year.
After returning from the Coast Guard, Palmer worked as a paint salesman as he honed his game in amateur events. He really didn’t sell much paint, but played golf with clients.
Palmer’s first Masters victory in 1958 came with some controversy. During the final round — while playing with Ken Venturi — Palmer’s tee shot at the par-3 12th flew over the green and half the ball was plugged. He felt he was entitled to a drop, but the rules official on site declined. Palmer, under the rules of the day, played a second ball, a provisional. Playing the first, he flubbed the chip and made a double-bogey 5. With the second he made a routine par. Palmer got a ruling a few holes later that the par would stand. And Venturi always believed it was a bad ruling.
For that victory, Palmer received a first-place check of $11,250 — the first time a golfer received a five-figure payday for winning.
Many recall or are aware that Palmer birdied the final two holes of the 1960 Masters to win by one, with Venturi finishing second. But his par on the par-3 16th hole — giving him a 3-3-3- finish — has some added relevance today. Palmer putted from the back of the green and his birdie attempt was struck too hard, the ball bouncing off the unattended flagstick but stopping just a few feet away, allowing for an easy par. At the time — and the rule was reinstituted this year — you could putt with the flagstick unattended while on the green.
Palmer more or less invented the modern Grand Slam. After winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960, Palmer set his goal to win The Open at St. Andrews — a tournament that had lost considerable stature due to Americans’ reluctance to play it. Palmer, along with writers Bob Drum and Dan Jenkins, wondered if a victory there followed by one at the PGA Championship would constitute a modern Grand Slam. The idea stuck, but Palmer came up a shot short at St. Andrews and never won the PGA.
Later that year, Palmer was at an awards ceremony called to name the 1960 Hickok Belt winner signifying the professional athlete of the year. Baseball player Roger Maris asked Palmer, “What the hell are you doing here?” After winning the diamond-laden, alligator-skin belt, Palmer walked past Maris on the way out and said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Holding a one-shot lead with a hole to play during the 1961 Masters, Palmer noticed a friend along the gallery ropes who called out his name. Palmer greeted the man, who offered his congrats on a second straight Masters win. Palmer later said it was the only time he ever let down his guard like that. Palmer proceeded to dump his approach in a bunker, skull it across the green into another bunker, and make a double-bogey 6 to lose to Gary Player by one stroke.
Before their 18-hole playoff to decide the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Palmer offered to split the playoff purse, which was common in those times. Nicklaus declined, then went on to win the playoff for his first PGA Tour win and major championship. It was one of three playoff losses for Palmer in the U.S. Open.
The 1963 Ryder Cup was Palmer’s second as a player, and he would go 4-2 playing in six matches at East Lake in Atlanta in what was a 23-9 U.S. rout. Palmer was 22-8-2 in his Ryder Cup career that spanned six matches. He also captained that ’63 team, the last playing captain in the competition. Palmer also was the U.S. captain in 1975 and was 2-0 in that role.
In what turned out to be the last of his 62 PGA Tour victories, Palmer won the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, beating Nicklaus by two strokes. Afterward, at a celebration dinner, Palmer and Nicklaus cracked up the audience by dancing together — Nicklaus wearing a blonde wig.
Palmer’s love of flying is well-documented, and he learned to fly in order to overcome his fear of it. In 1976, he set a round-the-world speed record in a Learjet of 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds.
After leaving the White House in 1977, one of Gerald Ford’s first acts after Jimmy Carter took over as President? Play a round of golf with Palmer.
Palmer never won the PGA Championship, denying him a career grand slam. But he did finish runner-up three times (1964, 1968, 1970) and was second in majors a total of 10 times.
Palmer was part of the inaugural class inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
Palmer was at first reluctant to participate in senior golf, but in 1981 he became the first player to have captured the U.S. Open and also win the U.S. Senior Open.
At the 1986 Chrysler Cup, a senior team event, Palmer made aces on consecutive days in tournament preliminaries on the same hole at the TPC Potomac, holing out with a 5-iron on the 187-yard third hole both times.
Palmer was the victorious captain for the U.S. at the 1996 Presidents Cup, the second time the competition was staged.
In 1999, Palmer became the first Masters champion to be invited to join Augusta National. Nicklaus would later join him.
When Palmer received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012, he was just the sixth sportsman to be so honored. In 2004, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush and is the only sportsman to be honored with both awards.