Some men love cars. Others love watches, pens, vinyl albums or books. Arnold Palmer loved golf equipment.
It was a fascination that started when he was a boy at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club. When he wasn’t sneaking onto the course, a young Palmer often could be found in his father’s workshop. Palmer, whose first club was a cut-down brassie (a modern 2-wood), tinkered with his clubs out of necessity.
“I never got a new set of golf clubs until I was old enough to buy them myself,” he wrote in the limited-edition book “Arnold Palmer: Look This Way Please!” “That’s another reason I spent so much time tinkering with my clubs. They were usually hand-me-downs, so I had to modify them to fit my swing. And, boy, did I learn quickly!”
As PGA Tour players line up on the range at Bay Hill in Orlando this week for the first Arnold Palmer Invitational since the King’s death Sept. 25, they should be grateful for the trail Palmer blazed in the equipment industry. These days, club work can be done by skilled technicians in the Tour vans that line up in the parking lot. In the early days of Palmer’s career, he often had to look for a workbench to make any adjustments himself.
Palmer signed his first equipment endorsement deal with Wilson Sporting Goods three months after winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur. His name and picture appeared in advertisements for the company’s Dyna-Weight irons in 1955.
Palmer said his relationship with Wilson was good during his first three-year contract, and he won his first Masters and 12 other events using Wilson clubs. However, after signing his second three-year deal, things became less amicable. Palmer learned that even while he was winning a lot, other players had more lucrative contracts. He also discovered that Wilson could automatically renew his deal for another three years, which forced Palmer to wait until 1963 to found Arnold Palmer Golf Co.
In later years Palmer would endorse and put his name on equipment made by several companies including Dunlop (1963-70), Sears (1967-72), Uniroyal (1971-79) and Pro Group (1972-95).
Over the years, the stockpile of clubs in Palmer’s workshop in Latrobe grew to mythic proportions. Stacks of woods (persimmon and metal), irons, wedges and putters reached from floor to ceiling. There were grips of every texture and color, machines for bending clubs, grinding wheels and bags stuffed with gear.
In 2000, Palmer signed with Callaway Golf and gave his blessing to the ERC II driver, a club that the U.S. Golf Association had deemed non-conforming because its face flexed too much.
“I think what Callaway is doing is just right,” Palmer said. “I have given a lot of thought to conforming and non-conforming clubs. If my daughter, who is a 100s-shooter, can shoot 90 with a non-conforming driver, I can’t imagine that there would be anything wrong with that.”
The backlash against Palmer came quickly and caught him off-guard.
“It hurts,” Palmer told Bob Harig of the St. Petersburg Times in 2001. “Some of the letters I have gotten are from people I consider to be pretty good friends. I didn’t really endorse the club. I only said I thought it would be fine if people used the club for recreational play.”
Palmer’s relationship with Callaway continued until his death. At the 2014 Arnold Palmer Invitational he drove a cart with two golf bags overflowing with clubs. He visited the Callaway equipment van and talked gear with technicians and players, wanting to stay up-to-date on the latest clubs.
From a hand-me-down brassie to space-age titanium drivers, Palmer hit them all.