(Editor’s Note: This story ran in the March 2017 issue of Golfweek.)
It is very difficult for me to emphasize how much I appreciated all the things you did to make the Presidents Cup a great success for your captain and everybody else. … Five wins … that was spectacular.
– To Mark O’Meara, 1996 Presidents Cup
Brandt Snedeker had but a few hours at home in Franklin, Tenn., on the day that Arnold Palmer died last September. He’d just completed the Tour Championship in Atlanta and had a quick turnaround to jet to the Ryder Cup in Minneapolis.
Trying somehow, as so many golfers were, to absorb the shock that Palmer – golf’s one and only king – was gone, Snedeker sat down in his home study and pulled out about 15 letters that Palmer had written to him through the years. As he read them, studied them and admired the personalization of them, the magnitude of Palmer’s generosity and kindness resonated more than ever.
“I’m there looking at all the stuff that he had sent me and thinking about the time he spent on me . . . I was a no-name guy when he started writing me letters, and I realize he’s done that for a countless number of people,” Snedeker said. “It kind of hit me the time he put into everybody else but himself. That’s going to be something you can’t replace.”
When Snedeker made the U.S. Palmer Cup team after finishing his career at Vanderbilt in 2003, Palmer wrote a letter to him. One year earlier, when Snedeker was named a Div. 1 All-America, Palmer had mailed him a note and a picture, signing it “Best Wishes, Arnold Palmer.”
“It’s pretty cool to have all that stuff at home and go through it and realize that I’m one of probably 10,000 people that he did that for in his life. That’s pretty special.”
Snedeker’s estimate may be high, but maybe not. Palmer sure made a lot of golfers happy. When did it all start? His longtime assistant and office confidante, Doc Giffin, said Palmer, an old-school gentleman for whom he worked 51 years, wrote letters to tournament winners for as long as he can remember.
Giffin was a newspaper man from Pittsburgh, in Palmer’s backyard, who first went to work for the PGA Tour and became Palmer’s assistant in 1966. The two had quite a run. Many Monday mornings in the office across the street from Palmer’s beloved Latrobe Country Club were saved for discussions on what had gone on in tournaments on several tours over the weekend, such as who’d won, and how they did it.
What had started decades ago as Palmer penning handwritten congratulatory notes to winners and friends morphed into a more expansive tradition in recent years. Palmer would dictate personalized letters for winners each week on the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, LPGA and even the Web.com Tour. The letters would be typed up, and Palmer would sign them.
“We enjoyed talking about the weekend golf activities, for sure,” Giffin said. “And I gather that it meant something to the players who got those letters. He did over the years get a lot of ‘thank you’ notes from those who received a letter and appreciated it.”
In Gee Chun winning a second major last fall? A letter from Arnold. Mark O’Meara starring in the Presidents Cup with Palmer as his captain? A letter. Wesley Bryan winning a third title on the Web.com Tour last season, earning a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour? Palmer sent a letter. His letters weren’t solely for winners, either. If a player did something special, he took notice.
As much as Palmer won (62 PGA Tour titles, seven majors), he lost some real heartbreakers, too. So any player who lost a championship at the wire might be a candidate for a comforting message from The King.
“From time to time, when somebody had a disappointment and didn’t win, some unusual circumstance, he would occasionally write to someone sympathetic that he didn’t win the tournament,” Giffin said.
When rising University of Michigan sophomore Nick Carlson made a spirited run at the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills last summer, losing in the semis, Palmer, the 1954 U.S. Amateur champion, recognized the accomplishment. The U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills was played about a month before Palmer’s death, and the letter Carlson received is one of the last ones mailed out from the Palmer Enterprises office.
“To get the letter, read it, and get goosebumps reading it, almost kind of in tears, you’re so shocked and humbled that someone like that would take the time to reach out to you,” Carlson said.
Jordan Spieth, 23, figures he received close to 15 letters from Palmer. He keeps them all together, and vows one day soon to get organized enough at home in Dallas to get a few of his favorites framed.
“I think the first one I got was the first John Deere (his first win, in 2013).” Spieth said. “It was so cool. It’s personalized and signed. But … it wasn’t just this special feeling that this letter was coming to me; it was knowing that he took the time to do that each week, and not even just to winners on our tour that week. It’s awesome.”
Palmer’s impeccably neat letters – with a familiar Arnold Palmer, P.O. Box 52, Youngstown, Pa. header – were sent through the U.S. mail, though once he started sending letters to winners on the LPGA, a PDF would be attached into an email and sent.
With email at our fingertips daily, a letter of any kind has become a lost art. Palmer loved to send them.
“That was just his nature,” Giffin said.
Palmer and Jack Nicklaus frequently were characterized as heated rivals on the course, but they became great friends. Nicklaus said Palmer took him under his wing as a young player and taught him a great deal about what it took to be a professional.
It was Palmer who convinced Nicklaus to write a note to a tournament sponsor at the end of an event. Nicklaus began writing those notes as a PGA Tour rookie and continued the tradition into his days on what was then the PGA Senior Tour.
“It’s a nice touch that Arnold taught me,” Nicklaus said at the recent Honda Classic, “and I appreciated that very much.”
Following Palmer’s lead, Nicklaus sends a handwritten note to the four major winners each season, something he has done for nearly 40 years. Did Jack ever receive a letter from his pal Arnold? He couldn’t remember one, though on the occasion of winning his sixth Masters in 1986 at age 46, Nicklaus did receive a Western Union telegram from Palmer.
Palmer, who was 10 years older than Nicklaus, first congratulated Nicklaus on his 18th major. And forever the optimist, he concluded with this: “Might you think there’s room for a 56-year-old to win it?”
Paul Broadhurst sorted through mail he’d retrieved Sept. 27 in the tiny English village of Fenny Dreyton, outside Nuneaton, and there was one particular piece of correspondence that stopped him in his steps.
“It’s funny, actually,” Broadhurst said via phone from England, “I thought it might be an invite to the Bay Hill Classic (Arnold Palmer Invitational), that’s what I thought. It had ‘Arnold Palmer’ on the envelope, and I thought to myself, ‘Right, I’ve just won the British Seniors, I’ve just won at Pebble Beach, it may be an invite to play.’
“That was my initial reaction.”
When Broadhurst, who’d won the PGA Tour Champions’ Nature Valley First Tee Pebble Beach Open nine days earlier, finally opened the envelope, he had a surprise beyond any tourney invite: there was a nicely written congratulatory letter signed from Palmer, who had died two days earlier.
Broadhurst’s special keepsake is one of the last three letters Palmer mailed from his Pennsylvania office. Chun and Michael Thompson, who on Sept. 18 won events on the LPGA and Web.com Tour, respectively, also received letters from Palmer dated Sept. 19, less than a week before Palmer’s death. (The PGA Tour was off Sept. 15-18.)
Broadhurst, 51, has framed photos of him competing in the Ryder Cup, a picture of him playing alongside Seve Ballesteros and a photo from his amateur days at the British Open, when he was paired with Jack Nicklaus. Broadhurst, who said he never met Palmer, had his letter framed and said it soon will occupy a place of prominence in his home.
“It’s obviously very special,” he said. “The way he wrote it, even though he was ill, he was watching the end of the golf, or he wouldn’t have known how I did play the 18th and the delay we had playing that hole.
“I’m going to find a nice space for it on my wall.”