Arnold Palmer Once Won $26K in Philadelphia One Weekend

Hall of Fame golfer Arnold Palmer died yesterday at the age of 87. In 1963, he won the first-ever Whitemarsh Open — taking home a $26,000 prize, then golf's largest.

Arnold Palmer / Whitemarsh Valley Country Club logo

Arnold Palmer came into Philadelphia in 1963. After four days of tournament play, he walked out $26,000 richer.

Palmer, golf’s first superstar of the television era, died yesterday at the age of 87. Palmer won seven majors, and along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player popularized the sport in the 1960s.

In 1963, he won his lone tournament in the Philadelphia area, The Whitemarsh Open. Palmer took home $26,000 for it — at the time, the largest sole prize of his career. The tournament, later renamed the Philadelphia Golf Classic, was in its first year. The tournament at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club was the richest on the PGA Tour that season, handing out $125,000 in prizes.

Palmer, a Latrobe native, led going into the final round but saw his large lead evaporate when he struck a shot on the 14th hole over a snow fence and out of play. Palmer was often followed on tour by a large group of fans dubbed “Arnie’s Army.” After that errant shot, he turned to them and said: “Well, that makes things interesting now, doesn’t it?” He later told reporters he fell “absolutely fast asleep” before the errant shot.

It did make things interesting, especially when Palmer bogeyed the 16th hole. But he surrounded that bogey with birdies on the 15th and 17th hole, and two-putted on the final hole to make par and win the tournament by a shot over Lionel Herbert. He told reporters afterward the drive on the final hole was “his best drive of the tournament.” Palmer finished with a 7-under 281.

“I was fortunate to see Arnold play in his heyday, alongside a young Jack Nicklaus at the Whitemarsh Open in Philadelphia in the early 60s,” Stephen Altschuler wrote of seeing Palmer at the links in Whitemarsh. “It was unforgettable, with Palmer tossing his cigarette down and hitting laser, low trajectory drives out of sight … Palmer lamented to Jack about the cameras clicking away around them during their swings, while Nicklaus nodded in agreement. I was a very shy kid, going through some rough teenage years, but seeing the King charging down the fairway, hitching at his belt, smiling at the crowd, gave me a hero to model myself after. I was part of Arnie’s Army, something important, bigger than myself.”

Palmer set a record for earnings that year, making $127,555 after winning that $26,000 at the Whitemarsh Open. The first-place prize was so large one newspaper put “$26,000” over the headline of its recap of the event. The Associated Press called him “the undisputed No. 1 capitalist of the links.”

Palmer’s win was a tune-up for the Ryder Cup the following week; he’d been battling bursitis in his right shoulder before the tournament. With Palmer captaining, the U.S. defeated Great Britain, 23-9, in that year’s Ryder Cup.

The first Whitemarsh Open wasn’t the only time Palmer came to play in the Philadelphia area. In 1964, Jack Nicklaus won it — with Gary Player second, and Palmer third. It was one of only three times golf’s “big three” of the sixties finished 1-2-3 in a tournament. The following year, Palmer was criticized after dropping out of the Whitemarsh Open after a disastrous second round.

Palmer also designed courses in Blue Bell, Horsham and Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. He was stationed with the Coast Guard in Cape May earlier in his life.

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