7 Tournaments Where Arnold Palmer Had A Huge Impact On Golf

Arnold Palmer in 1979
Arnold Palmer in 1979. Brian Morgan/Getty Images

Arnold Palmer was certainly one of the most influential golfers in the history of the sport. What do we mean by that? That Palmer's popularity drove golf to new heights, to new levels of recognition among members of the public at large who weren't necessarily golf fans. But Palmer turned many a non-fan into a fan.

"Arnold's place in history will be as the man who took golf from being a game for the few to a sport for the masses," Jack Nicklaus once said.

"He was the catalyst who made that happen."

Look back through Palmer's career and you'll find plenty of tournaments to compile into a list of The King's biggest wins. But we've taken a different approach. What tournaments played by Palmer were the most influential - those tournaments where Palmer's impact on golf was the greatest?

We've selected seven tournaments to highlight here, some of which might be a surprise.

6. & 7. 1980 Senior PGA Championship/1981 U.S. Senior Open

What we now call the Champions Tour was on its way by 1980: The Senior PGA Tour existed ... barely. There were four tournaments in 1980, the first year of the new tour's existence. Is it coincidence that the Champions Tour was born just as Palmer was hitting his 50s? No!

Arnie's not responsible for the birth of the Champions Tour, but the fact that The King was immediately eligible to play in those earliest years was a huge, huge boost to senior golf.

The Senior PGA Championship dates to the 1930s, but it was always a tournament merely on the fringes of the golf mainstream. It didn't get a whole lot of attention. Then Palmer won it in 1980,  finally getting off the schneid in PGA championships.

The U.S. Senior Open was played for the first time in 1980, but it carried a minimum age of 55 so Palmer wasn't eligible.

By the 1981 Senior Open, the USGA was thinking, "Wait - we did what? We set an age requirement that kept Arnie out of our tournament? Are we nuts?" They lowered the minimum age to 50. Arnie played in 1981 and won the tournament, becoming the first golfer to have wins in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open.

In 1981 the Senior PGA Tour grew from four to seven tournaments; it increased to 11 in 1982 and 16 in 1983. It was Arnold Palmer's presence - and his success in the two biggest tournaments of the Senior Tour's first couple years - that helped secure the longterm existence of what we now call the Champions Tour.

5. Exhibition at Bay Hill in 1965

This is the only entry on our list that wasn't a "real" tournament. In 1965, Palmer headed south to Florida to play in an exhibition (along with Jack Nicklaus, among others) at a new golf course: Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

We have a separate article, including photos, about Arnie's first Bay Hill trip.

Why was that trip important? After seeing Bay Hill, Palmer told his wife, "I’ve just played the best course in Florida and I want to own it." Before long, Palmer did own Bay Hill. And before long, Palmer convinced the PGA Tour to move the Florida Citrus Open tournament to Bay Hill.

In 1979, the Bay Hill Classic was born, played at Palmer's course, with Palmer as the very visible host. It was Palmer's tournament, and became indelibly so in 2007 when it was renamed the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

That little exhibition in 1965 (which Palmer won, by the way) led to Palmer owning Bay Hill and led to his own tournament, one of the most visible events on the PGA Tour every year, and one of the biggest tournaments outside of the majors.

Read more about Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill

3. & 4. 1954 US Amateur Championship/1955 Canadian Open

It was Palmer's win in the 1954 U.S. Amateur that convinced him to give professional golf a try. (Had he finished runner-up instead of champion, would Palmer have ever become The King?)

And it was his first-ever PGA Tour win at the 1955 Canadian Open that made clear it was a good decision by Palmer to give pro golf a try.

Palmer's rise to superstardom went through Wake Forest University, which he entered in 1947. But it detoured into three years in the Coast Guard (Palmer quit college in 1950 following the death of a close friend.) However, during his Coast Guard years Palmer still managed to play - and win - some amateur tournaments.

In 1954, out of the Coast Guard, he entered the U.S. Amateur and beat Robert Sweeny Jr., 1-up, in the final.

Emboldened by a victory in an amateur major, Palmer decided to turn pro and try traveling the PGA circuit in 1955. His first PGA Tour win came at the 1955 Canadian Open and the rest, as they say, is history. (continue for No. 2 and No. 1)

2. 1960 British Open

Arnold Palmer didn't win the 1960 British Open: He finished second, one shot behind Kel Nagle. But Palmer played the 1960 Open, and that alone was enough to have a huge impact on the golf world.

Palmer's presence was enormously important for two reasons:

  • He re-established the British Open as one of the world's most important golf tournaments;
  • He created the modern concept of the four professional major championships.

    First, Palmer's impact on the Open itself: The British Open was the original professional golf tournament. Golf was centered in Great Britain at least until the 1910s, arguably later. But beginning in the 1910s and strongly accelerating into the 1920s, golf's "center of gravity," so to speak, shifted to the United States.

    And stars of the American golf scene who were willing to make the trip to play the British Open were few. Travel in that era was a long and arduous process; and it was a money-losing proposition for American stars to travel to Scotland or England for the Open. So most didn't.

    As a result, the British Open fell in stature among American golfers and casual golf fans. But when Arnold Palmer decided, in 1960, to make his first trip to the Open, that changed, and it changed rapidly. Within 10 years it was very rare for America's best golfers to skip the Open.

    And it wasn't just Arnie's presence in 1960, it was the fact that he declared the Open a major, he told his fellow U.S. pros, this is one of the four most important tournaments in our sport.

    Today, every golf fan knows the four majors are The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Ask a golf fan in 1959 what the majors were, and you'd likely get various replies. One of those replies might even be, "What do you mean by 'major championship'?" The concept did not exist in any way approaching the way we think of "majors" today.

    But Palmer had won the 1960 Masters, and he'd won the 1960 U.S. Open. He wanted to win the Open - he wanted to win all four of the tournaments he considered the most prestigious in golf.

    And if he did, what would that be? It would be the new Grand Slam, Palmer and his friend, the golf journalist Bob Drum, decided. Bobby Jones had won a Grand Slam in 1930 consisting of the U.S. and British opens, and the U.S. and British amateurs. But in 1960, Palmer decided - and  popularized with a magazine article under his byline - the Grand Slam needed to be the four biggest pro events.

    And those four tournaments are the four majors we recognize today as the most important tournaments in golf. It was Palmer who re-energized the British Open by playing in 1960, and simultaneously created the modern era of golf in which the four professional majors are the U.S. and British Opens, the Masters and the PGA - and golfers' performances in those events form the narratives of their entire careers.

    1. 1958 Masters

    The legend of Arnold Palmer was born at the 1958 Masters: The legend of the handsome, rugged, risk-taking, swashbuckling, go-for-broke and oh-so-charismatic golfer who turned on a nation to the game of golf.

    Oh, Arnold Palmer the golfer existed beforehand. Palmer was already a winner on the PGA Tour eight times over since his rookie year of 1955, including four wins in 1957. He was an up-and-comer whose fame was growing.

    Winning the 1958 Masters catapulted Palmer to superstardom, and golf was never the same.

    It was once said about Walter Hagen, a charismatic star of an earlier era, by his contemporary Gene Sarazen, "All the professionals ... should say a silent thanks to Walter Hagen each time they stretch a check between their fingers."

    The same thing could be said - in fact, often was and is said - about Palmer. Jack Nicklaus, for example: "Arnold is the reason golf enjoys the popularity it does today. He ... made golf attractive to the television-viewing public."

    With Palmer as the new face of the PGA Tour, television coverage expanded and tournament purses increased.

    Golf reached into the public conciousness in a way it hadn't before, and even non-golf fans came to know Palmer. (Hagen, Palmer and Tiger Woods have had the biggest impacts on golf in these regards.)

    Arnie's Army arrived at the 1958 Masters. The term applied to all of Palmer's legions of fans, but that specific term arose because Augusta National Golf Club decided this week to give free admission to military members from nearby Camp Gordon, and the Army boys adopted Palmer as their man.

    And the now-famous term "Amen Corner" was invented this year in writer Herbert Warren Wind's description of Arnie's victory, particularly Palmer's eagle of the 13th hole in the final round.