In 1966 the purse for the then Florida Citrus Sports Invitational at the Rio Pinar Country Club was $110,000. The tournament was won by Lionel Hebert, who won five times in his career, including the 1957 PGA Championship- his first pro win. This week, one of the best fields ever for the tournament, will play at Bay Hill with a purse of $20M.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is one of 13 "designated" tournaments with a massive payout. Phil Mickelson and the issues he raised about the PGA Tour needing to do more for players is one of several reasons the Tour created these special events, Arnold Palmer is also a reason, even though he passed more than six years ago.
There is no argument that Tiger Woods has done more than anyone in creating the hundreds of millions of dollars golfers have played for over the years, but Palmer's early career success laid the foundation for golf on television.
There was very little coverage on golf in the 1950s. Most of the sport's coverage of greats like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead came from newspaper writers and reporters who penned the stories of their success on the course. But in 1955, Arnold won his first tournament as a rookie in the Canadian Open and won $2,400.He won twice in 1956, four times in 1957, three times in 1958 and three more wins in 1959. In 1960, Arnie won eight times, including the Masters and US Open.
That 1960 season saw Palmer do something few Americans had done. Arnie played in the British Open. Back then US golfers rarely made the long trek and when they did they often didn't like the link-style course and the weather. But Palmer wanted to play where other greats had played and although he finished one shot back for a second place finish at the event that year(held in Scotland), he won over European fans who got a chance to see this rising star perform with his dashing looks and go-for-it attitude. He would return to play and win the event in 1961 and 1962.
Palmer's flash and style created a star on the course and off. During his incredible 1960 season, Palmer partnered with agent Mark McCormick. The two saw an opportunity to market Palmer, who became one of America's most popular pitchmen of products. That made him one of the most recognized people in the country and made television networks see the value of televising the sport. He became a must watch star.
Palmer and McCormick convinced ad agencies and television networks that showcasing golf would attract a desired audience and would be a perfect place to promote their product and services and who better than Arnold Palmer to represent them.
Long before Magic and Larry, Michael and Tiger- there was Arnold Palmer. Ask Jack Nicklaus about Palmer's power and fan appeal. For years, Jack struggled to win over fans and learned how popular Palmer was because whenever the Golden Bear beat Palmer he heard the boos because he was beating America's golfer. Nicklaus and fellow legend Gary Player eventually saw that Palmer had mastered the role of player and pitchman and they too joined McCormick's IMG agency.
Palmer convinced many sports stars that you could, and should, make more money in endorsements than winnings on the golf course or any salary a team would pay(as does LeBron James today).
Arnold Palmer won 62 times but made a total of $1.8M in career earnings. That total is less than 1/20th of what he made as an endorser and a few hundred million short of what he made as a businessman and course developer.
There is a Golf Channel today because Arnold Palmer convinced investors there should be one. Long before MLB Network, NBA Network, NHL Network, Tennis Channel or any other sports specific channel, Palmer saw the value of what a 24/7 network covering golf was worth.
The Golf Channel took the sport to another level and showcased golfers across the globe. That brought the game to new viewers and delivered sponsors a desired audience and brought billions to the industry. That led to new corporate sponsors for the tour and tournaments. And that's how purses began to grow from $1 million to $5M and $10M to the $20M purse players will play for this week.
Arnold Palmer was the reason the world's best came to Orlando to play in his tournament. It was a form of respect to who he was on the course and his impact off. There are hundreds of stories of a golfer who had not yet committed to play at Bay Hill and receiving a call from "Mr. Palmer" asking why they had not heard from him on his commitment to play. Those calls didn't last long and almost always ended with a "well, we are excited to hear you are coming" because it was almost impossible to say no to Arnie.
The $20M purse is why the world's best are here in Orlando this week. The PGA Tour didn't have to choose this tournament as a "designated" event. But then again, maybe they did. After all, it might be the least they could do for the event and the man who is responsible for the business principles of a sport he helped build into what it is today...
Final note: Arnold Palmer's final appearance as a player at Bay Hill came in 2004. He was 74 at the time and while he didn't make the cut Palmer hit a perfect drive on 18 and then dropped a pin high iron on a perfectly manicured green. He shot 79 and walked off waving to the crowd for one final time.