Person of the Week: Arnold Palmer

April 9, 2004 -- Golfer Arnold Palmer finished playing in his last Masters Tournament today.After claiming four Masters wins, his 50-year career is coming to an end. Time, Palmer claims, is not a professional golfer's friend.

"Now, at 74, you know, I have trouble hitting 300-yard drives. Every once in a while I get one, but as you get older it becomes a bit of a penalty," Palmer said during a press conference this week.

Palmer has been slowly winding his way into retirement over the last 10 years. He played his last U.S. Open in 1994 and his final British Open a year later.

Palmer was golf's first celebrity in the television era, and helped change the way the sport is seen.

"It was an elite sport played inside a fence, over there somewhere," said USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. "After Arnold Palmer, it was a sport open to the masses. The game of golf said, 'Come on in! Come on in and play this game!'"

Like Father, Like Son

Palmer has always been comfortable and gracious with the public, even the media. He said he gets it from his father.

"What he taught me was manners — to be polite and to treat other people like I would like to be treated. And he drove that home. This is long before I knew I'd be doing this and talking to you people and doing it for 50 years," Palmer said.

Deacon Palmer taught his son golf, getting him his first set of clubs when he was only three. His father was first the groundskeeper and finally the teaching pro at the Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania, where Arnold grew up.

"He was a tough guy," Palmer said of his father in a 1999 interview with ABCNEWS. "The tougher he was, the more I loved him. But I never heard more than 'Nice going, boy.'"

Young Palmer would sneak on to the course at every opportunity. By the time he was 8, he was playing regularly. He began winning tournaments in high school.

Palmer is fond of the story about two golf veterans who once watched him play."One said to the other, 'Who's that kid over there hitting balls?' And he looked at him and said, 'Oh that's a young guy, I know him. He's Arnold Palmer.' He said to the guy, 'You better tell him to get a job!'"

So much for that advice.

Palmer turned pro in 1954. The same year, he met his future wife, Winnie Walzer, at a tournament. He said it was love at first sight; it only took five days to propose.

They were married for 45 years, until she died of cancer in 1999.Palmer said he wished it could have been him, and in 1997, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, it almost was.

After his cancer operation, the doctors said he had to rest for 42 days. On day 43 he was playing golf again.

Athelete Turned Brand

Palmer has won 92 major tournaments during his career.

He was among the very first professional athletes who became a brand. Before Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, Palmer was the most sought-after sports figure.

Palmer is sentimental about playing his last Masters, but he is certain about his legacy.

"I always say one thing," Palmer said. "If I can teach a young man coming along — and I've seen a lot of them — if I can teach them to leave the game better when they leave than they found it when they arrived, then I've been successful."