LOS ANGELES – Arnold Palmer, one of golf’s greatest players whose immense popularity drew a legion of fans known as “Arnie’s Army” and helped propel the game just as television was coming of age, died yesterday at age 87, the US Golf Association and golf media reported.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87,” the USGA said on Twitter.

Palmer, who posted 62 victories on the PGA Tour starting in 1955, died in Pittsburgh, near his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, golf media reported.

A winner of seven major championships, including four Masters, Palmer had no peers as a fan favourite and always went to great lengths to ensure that every person waiting in line ended up with a cherished autograph, an approach that even today’s generation of players tries to live up to.

Palmer developed his following at tournaments and on television with an affable demeanour, telegenic looks and modest background as the son of a greenskeeper.

Palmer ranks fifth on the PGA’s list of tournament victories. His biggest win may have come in 1960, when he won the U.S. Open after being down seven shots in the final round in the greatest comeback in that tournament’s history. He beat Jack Nicklaus, a then 20-year-old amateur, by two shots, prefacing a rivalry between the two that lasted throughout the 1960s.

Palmer was especially dominant from 1960 to 1963, winning 29 PGA Tour events. He was named Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 1960.

Palmer had an unorthodox swing and go-for-broke style that added to his appeal among fans, who became known as “Arnie’s Army” for the size of his following.

“I enjoy the crowds, and I enjoyed playing to them. I suppose that was one thing that helped me as much as anything,” Palmer told Golf.com in 2011.

Palmer’s success on the course and at attracting fans helped boost television ratings for golf, making it a staple of weekend TV sports.

In 1967, he became the first golfer to reach $1 million in career earnings. His last PGA Tour win came in 1973.

President George W. Bush awarded Palmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, in 2004.

He met his first wife, Winifred Walzer, at a golf tournament in Pennsylvania. They married in 1954 and had two daughters. She died in 1999. Palmer remarried in 2005 to Kathleen Gawthrop.

– Reuters

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