Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday of complications from heart problems, fell just short of being the greatest player in golf history. But for a brief period, he was very nearly as good as anyone who ever played the game — and his greatness came at exactly the right time for a sport seeking viewers at the dawn of the television age.
From 1958 to 1966, Palmer won seven major championships — including four green jackets at The Masters — and finished in the top 10 at 16 other majors. At the heart of that span was a five-season stretch from 1960 to 1964, which, according to our method of “major shares” (which credit players for their expected majors won based on how dominant their scores are relative to the field), still stands as the seventh-best peak performance of golf’s modern era.1
Seventh-best doesn’t sound overly impressive, until you consider that slots 1 through 6 are four five-season stretches from Tiger Woods and two from Jack Nicklaus. In fact, that pair so thoroughly dominates any ranking of great golf seasons that merely being in their company is a rare honor. And in terms of peak greatness, Arnie is the only other player in the conversation aside from Tiger and Jack:
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Palmer didn’t remain at that level very long. He made his final top-10 finish at The Masters in 1967, and although he’d have 11 more top-10s at the other majors, he also fell out of golf’s highest tier of players around that time. While still capable of contending at majors, he didn’t do it consistently after the mid- to late 1960s. And by that point, Nicklaus had long since surpassed Palmer as the game’s top player. In Nicklaus’s absence, Palmer could have enjoyed a longer reign atop the sport, but Palmer had the misfortune of winning his first major only four years before golf’s eventual G.O.A.T. would win his.
But in other ways, Palmer’s timing couldn’t have been better. His greatest stretch of seasons coincided with golf’s increased popularity in a booming postwar America, and — even more importantly — the ascendance of televised sporting events in the U.S. With good looks and a swashbuckling style that played well on TV, Palmer became the face of the sport, selling it (and himself) to growing audiences on a national stage.
Ultimately, that will be Arnold Palmer’s most important golf legacy. But in all the talk about his role in popularizing the sport, we shouldn’t forget just how good he was at playing it during his prime. He wasn’t there very long, but when Palmer was at his best, only a couple players in the history of the sport were better.