By Robson Sharuko
Harare- Before Tiger Woods transformed golf and turned it into this billion-dollar industry, wooing millions of new fans from all over the world, there was ‘The Big Three’ whose iconic battles for supremacy became the stuff of legends that built the solid foundation on which this game would turn itself into a commercial juggernaut.
The immortal Jack Nicklaus, who would go on to win 18 Major titles; the charismatic Arnold Palmer, whose good looks and brilliance turned the game on its head; and the amazing South African superstar Gary Player, the best golfer to emerge outside the United States – who won nine Major titles and remains just one of five people to win the Grand Slam of Golf.
Their titanic duels on the golf course was a game-changer for a sport that, until their emergence, was struggling to project itself as a mass sporting discipline that was not only reserved for the elites of the country clubs and, as millions of fans were converted to fall in love with golf, the foundation was built on which this sport thrives up to this day.
The three superstars combined to win the Masters 13 times, between 1960 and 1966 only one them was good enough to wear the famous green jacket given to the golfer who wins the Masters at Augusta National, and even though Tigermania came and turned the game on its head, Woods – for all his brilliance – still hasn’t come close to winning the 18 Major titles which Nicklaus captured during a career made it heaven.
And ‘The Big Three’ have, or until last Sunday had, come to represent not only purity, when it comes to brilliance, but a throwback to a romantic era when golf turned itself into this massive global game with its footprints, and fans, across the world and whose stars today like Rory McIIroy last weekend, can now pocket a cool US$10 million from emerging triumphant at a tournament.
As fate would have it, the Northern Irishman’s sensational comeback story in Atlanta, to win the Players’ Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup whose prize money was US$10 million, came on a defining day when golf would say goodbye to one of its greatest stars after news emerged that Palmer had died in the United States.
Palmer’s death on Sunday, at the age of 87, sent the gold world into mourning and will cast a big shadow on the 41st Ryder Cup showdown this weekend when the best golfers from the United States take on their European counterparts at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, in the United States.
Simply known as the King, Palmer revolutionised golf to such an extent that he created a bandwagon of fans, who called themselves ‘Arnie’s Army’, while his brilliance on the course and the business deals he struck off, thanks to his magic as an athlete that golf had never seen before, turned him into the game’s first millionaire star.
Player, who was at his farm in South Africa when he first heard the news, wrote a moving statement, which he posted on his Twitter page, about the man who was not only a tough competitor but a family friend during the years they slugged it out in an enduring battle for supremacy.
“Vivienne and I just woke up on the farm this morning to the sad news that our friend Arnold Palmer passed away peacefully last night in the United States of America,” Player noted in his statement.
“I have so many vivid memories of our time competing around the world, with our families, helping each other’s charities and just being together.
“Arnold was many things to many people and undoubtedly made golf more popular but to me he was simply a dear friend for over 60 years. Of course, like anybody we had our differences but these never stood in the way of our relationship and I will miss him terribly.
“He could be difficult and demanding but also blessed with charisma, charm and patience. Arnold Palmer simply transcended the game of golf. He was inspirational to so many and lived his life to the fullest.”
Yes, this included this cigar that used to hang from his mouth and a passion for flying that took him around the world in his own plane while his branding powers made him a money-making machine that the game had never seen before he emerged on the scene and blew everything away with his style and success on the course.
“He had a slashing, dashing style accompanied with a knowing smile. He was loved by all even when they did not know him. He always made an effort, even when the odds were stacked against him,” said Player.
“Muff, I will raise my glass and toast my life tonight my friend and hope to reunited for another round together in time. Rest in peace. I love you.”
In 1968, Palmer became the first golfer to earn more than $1 million in career prize money on the US PGA Tour and, since then, the award for the leading money winner each year now bears his name.
But golf will always remember the winner that he was as he powered to victory by winning four Masters titles in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964, the US Open in 1960 and the British Open in 1961 and 1962.
Player also won the Masters in 1961, 1974 and 1978, the United States Open in 1959, 1968 and 1974, the US Open in 1965 and the US PGA title in 1962 and 1972.
Of course, Nicklaus ultimately set the benchmark with his 18 Major titles, something that Woods had chased all his career and, unless something dramatic happens in his game and fitness, might never get, but golf is united that although, among ‘The Big Three’, Palmer won the least number of Majors, he was undoubtedly the game-changer.
And, as the tributes have shown this week, the most popular of the trio.
Ernie Els, one of the greatest golfers to come out of Africa, agrees.
“What a man, what a golfer. His contribution to golf is beyond measure and it’s no exaggeration to say that the modern game would not be as it now without Arnold Palmer,” Els, the South African superstar, said on his blog.
“He attracted an almost frenzied following from galleries, the famous Arnie’s Army. Golf loved him and he loved it back in equal measure. There will never be another golfer like Arnold Palmer and the game of golf will miss him so much.”