Happy birthday, Mr. Palmer

Arnold Palmer reads the newspaper in his office in Latrobe, Pa. prior to his 80th birthday.

Arnold Palmer reads the newspaper in his office in Latrobe, Pa. prior to his 80th birthday.

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LATROBE, Pa. – Happy 84th birthday, Arnold Daniel Palmer.

His plan was to spend his day quietly in Latrobe. He’ll enjoy a nice breakfast at home with his wife, Kit, and then will venture to the office – leisurely, he says – where he and longtime assistant Doc Giffin will start sorting through the “pile of work” that awaits. Some 40 years after his last PGA Tour victory, the requests for Palmer to sign memorabilia never cease, and he still spends hours upon hours signing. It’s a matter of perspective: He views it as a privilege, not a burden. For Palmer, it’s always, always been about the fans; that’s why he’s The King.

Kit said there might be a small family dinner this evening, though the family already gathered on Sunday to celebrate a little early. They made chili and filled the afternoon watching sports, from football to tennis to America’s Cup yachting.

Today will be meaningful for Palmer, mostly because of where he gets to celebrate it. Seated at a table along the back wall inside the bar at Latrobe on Monday afternoon, he spoke about his genuine love for the club, where his father once served as head professional and superintendent, and where golf’s greatest ambassador learned to play the game.

The drainage ditch that once ran across the fairway about 75 yards off the front tee at No. 6 (now the club's fifth hole) no longer exists (the same goes for Palmer’s childhood home), but it’s on that hole that a 6-year-old boy with cut-down clubs received an interesting offer from one of the members on Ladies Day that would set him on his entrepreneurial way.

“Her name was Mrs. Fritz,” said Palmer, smiling. “And she said, ‘Arnie, if you hit my ball across that ditch, I’ll give you a nickel.’ And I was there until I left home. I made a nickel, and man, I was there every time she was.”

On Monday, Palmer hosted the inaugural Latrobe Classic, a fundraiser to generate money for the Arnold Palmer Medical Center, which comprises the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, in Orlando, Fla. Twenty-four years ago today, the ribbon was cut on the facility, and it has had an incredible impact in Orlando. The center’s advanced technology makes it one of the most trusted and well-respected facilities in children’s healthcare, and it gives Palmer an off-course legacy to go alongside the one he built on the course.

Here’s a stat: By 7 p.m. Monday, there were 40 babies – 40 babies! – born Sept. 9 at Winnie Palmer. And many more will be born today, sharing a birthdate with a legend.

“We’re filling classrooms,” said John Bozard, who is president of Arnold Palmer Medical Center and who has been there from the start, bringing Palmer on his first tour of what were quite-modest hospital facilities some 30 years ago.

Monday evening in the Latrobe ballroom, JetBlue and Golf Channel announced a five-year commitment to support the Latrobe Classic, an event in which golfers play Bay Hill in Orlando, then fly north to play Latrobe, handing Palmer a check for $1 million.

That it all was happening at Latrobe added to the moment. Palmer’s late father, Deacon, who once set Palmer’s grip perfectly on a golf club here and told him never to change it, once had an offer to work at prestigious Oakmont down the road an hour or so in Pittsburgh, but he turned it down. His son said it might have been the best move his dad ever made.

“This is my home,” said Palmer, “where I was born and raised. These floors (in the restaurant/bar) were here when I was a little boy, and they’re still here, like the floors upstairs in the ballroom. The club, everything here, it’s home, and I love it.

“I love Orlando (where he has spent his winters since 1969), and I love to be there, but I like this, too. On a day like today, it’s perfect.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Palmer.

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