Arnold Palmer: The King and his castle

Arnold Palmer in his office in Latrobe, Pa., on the eve of his 80th birthday.

Arnold Palmer in his office in Latrobe, Pa., on the eve of his 80th birthday.

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This story ran in the Sept. 5 issue of Golfweek.

LATROBE, Pa. – Arnold Palmer rises from his regular lunch table in the men’s grill at Latrobe Country Club.

Heads turn and Palmer returns smiles as he approaches the table where I’m seated with his grandson and star pupil, Will Wears, to learn how the 14-year-old played this morning. Palmer stands behind Will’s chair, places those great big oven mitts of his on the boy’s shoulders, and asks: “So, what did you shoot today?”

With a tinge of disappointment in his voice, Will reports carding another ho-hum 73, matching the score he posted to win Latrobe’s junior club championship in July. It wasn’t quite the sterling 68 he had crafted recently while partnering with grandpa in a match.

“Did you do as I told you?” Palmer begs to know.

Will blushes. Palmer looks me in the eyes and, sounding like a record playing at the wrong speed, says: “He . . . needs. . . to . . . swing . . . a . . . little . . . slower.”

I almost fall out of my seat. Did Palmer really order his grandson to ease up on the pedal? What’s next, I wonder, a lecture on the benefits of laying up? After all, this was the man who, in his heyday, famously swung like he was coming out of his shoes. When reporters at the 1954 U.S. Amateur asked Gene Littler to identify the slim golfer cracking balls on the practice tee, Littler said: “That’s Arnold Palmer. He’s going to be a great player some day. When he hits the ball, the earth shakes.”

These days, the 80-year-old Palmer is better at imparting wisdom about golf than playing it. It was nearly three years ago that he stopped keeping score after four holes in a Champions Tour event. “It’s emotional for me because it’s my life,” Palmer said at the time.

He’s still uneasy about being a ceremonial golfer and is adjusting to his role as golf’s elder statesman.

“I don’t see myself doing much as far as going out and just hitting the first shot at Augusta,” Palmer says. “I think that will diminish in a couple of years. I enjoy it right now. I think they might be adding Jack (Nicklaus) this year and maybe Gary (Player) later on. I don’t know that for sure. But when it gets crowded, I will disappear.”

(Nicklaus confirmed Aug. 31 he would join Palmer as an honorary starter at the 2010 Masters.)

Athletic careers often end with a crisis of identity. But not Palmer’s. He still is designing golf courses, helping to oversee his business empire and, most of all, enjoying his six grandchildren, especially the ones who play golf.

• • •

Palmer, professional golf’s original superstar, was the first golfer whom we thought we truly knew. But to understand him now, one must travel to the place that has shaped his life. Nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, Latrobe is where Palmer spends the warm months of the year. Though for decades he has made his winter home in Orlando, Fla., he never has lost touch with his western Pennsylvania roots.

“It’s where I was born and raised, where I learned to play golf, where I play golf, where I still at my age have a lot of friends that I see from day to day,” Palmer says. “Of all the places I’ve been, there isn’t any place that I’m more comfortable than I am right here.”

Latrobe has the intimacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; in fact, it is where Fred Rogers, a former classmate of Palmer’s, grew up.

Arriving in Latrobe, I notice Palmer, or his likeness, is omnipresent. He owns a GM dealership on U.S. Route 30, the main thoroughfare in town. His portrait stares at me as I check into my hotel. Hopping back into the car, I drive past the airport that bears his name, roll by Palmer Estates, a gated community, and reach Arnold Palmer Drive, where Latrobe CC is tucked away among towering pine trees.

The club was founded in 1920 by a group of local industrialists, bankers and professionals. From a 63-acre hilly plot of farmland emerged a short but imaginative nine-hole course. Among those who shaped the course was a teenager named Milford (Deacon) Palmer, Arnold’s father. Deacon became Latrobe’s superintendent in 1926 and its golf professional in 1931, and stayed active until his death at age 71 in 1976. (His ashes were scattered at Latrobe’s 18th hole.) It was Deacon who planted nearly all of the trees that matured to guard the narrow fairways. Palmer’s voice grows tight when he describes the land his father nurtured.

“I know every stone, every blade of grass, everything here,” he says. “I’ve hunted on these grounds for food during the Depression. It’s the place for me to be.”

Palmer grew up in a two-story frame house off the sixth tee. To this day, Palmer and his three siblings live in the area. His sister Lois Jean – or “Cheech” to friends and family – resides in Palmer Estates. Sandy lives in nearby Ligonier. His younger brother, Jerry, who serves as Latrobe CC’s general manager, owns a home adjacent to the 16th tee.

Three years after turning professional, when the big paydays started rolling in, Palmer built a white ranch house overlooking the course. Whenever his game soured, he retreated here and practiced with “Pap,” as Palmer affectionately called his father. Together, they designed a second nine holes at Latrobe in 1963 and revamped the existing holes to fit the par-72 layout, which today stretches to 6,500 yards.

In September 1971, Palmer purchased the facility. According to his book, “A Golfer’s Life,” Palmer remembers his father questioning the decision.

“Are you crazy? Why on earth would you want to do that?” Deacon asked.

“Well, Pap, I reasoned you’ve been here your whole life,” Palmer replied. “That’s good enough reason for me. Besides, it means you’d have to work for me.”

To play Latrobe is to play the same fairways and greens on which Palmer learned to play – and still does play. He began at age 3, swinging a sawed-off, hickory-shafted brassie given to him by his father.

To play Latrobe is to see where Palmer once swam in the stream called Nine Mile Run along the sixth hole. It’s where he picked weeds to earn golf balls, then painted the balls red in the winters so he could pound – and find – them in the snow. It’s where a tractor, before the advent of power steering and personal trainers, sculpted his muscular frame.

To play Latrobe is to understand how the forest of pines that pinch the 11th fairway gave root to Palmer’s shot-shaping flair. It’s where three days after turning 40, he shot a course-record 60 despite two bogeys.

Palmer still plays often with a regular group at Latrobe, with his grandson serving as an emergency fourth. And, when in Orlando, he still participates in the daily Shootout at Bay Hill.

“Most of these guys are accountants or stockbrokers or engineers or home builders, and they all beat me,” says Palmer of the Bay Hill contests. “That tells you something about my golf. And I hate it, but I still love golf.”

• • •

At Latrobe, it’s difficult to picture Palmer at 80. The reminders of yesteryear are everywhere. Photos and trophies, plaques and crystals, have transformed the place into a museum. But the clubhouse – which was designed and decorated by Palmer’s first wife, Winnie, who died in 1999 – is as unassuming as its owner.

The clubhouse, locker room and pro shop look as if they are out of an old novel, outdated perhaps but comfortable.

“It’s Winnie Palmer, and I’m very reluctant to change one thing of hers,” says Jerry Palmer.

Across the street, at the top of the hill on Legends Drive and just 50 yards from Arnie’s house, stands his office, where he spends most mornings. Palmer still wakes before dawn, drinks 12 ounces of water with a wedge of lemon, and exercises. He no longer jogs the golf course but still rides his bike, weather permitting, or “fast walks” on a treadmill daily. Then, he’s off in his golf cart, packed with two golf bags stuffed with 50 clubs, balls and lead tape. Mulligan, his yellow Labrador retriever, rides shotgun.

There are obligations, too. Palmer returns calls, answers e-mails, signs autographs and takes care of business. Finally, he allows himself to indulge in his passion. He escapes into the back room of his office – a private workshop filled with racks of clubs. Palmer’s longtime assistant, Doc Giffin, estimates there are more than 2,000 flatsticks alone.

“It’s the largest private collection of putters in the world,” Giffin claims.

Palmer is a tinkerer of golf clubs: He hammers them, tweaks their lofts and lies, bangs them some more and tests them endlessly. He boomed balls off a mat fixed to the back porch until the net he’d strung between two trees blew down last winter. Now, he whacks tennis balls that Mulligan dutifully chases.

Palmer does most of his toiling these days at a private range behind No. 6 and parallel to the eighth hole. This is where he practices and where he goes to think. It is his refuge.

“You don’t go there unless you’re invited,” Jerry explains.

Here, Palmer displays his genuine affection for the game. After all these years, it’s evident he still relishes the simple act of hitting golf balls. And he strikes them with the same corkscrew swing, a motion writer Charles Price once described as one “with all the abandon of a drunk at a driving range.”

When I ask Palmer to describe the swing of his prime, he looks at me with that same intense squint he directed at his targets and offers one apt word: “Effective.”

He breaks into a smile. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

Sure, Palmer concedes that he misses the competition, camaraderie and fellowship of the tour. “The guys, we kidded each other all the time,” he says.

Palmer played his final Bay Hill Invitational in 2004 with his grandson, Sam Saunders, on the bag. At the finishing hole of the second round, Palmer faced a daunting challenge on his second shot: The only way to reach the green guarded by water required driver off the deck. There was little hesitation.

“Just give me the driver,” he told Sam.

The young caddie averted his eyes, but it proved unnecessary. Palmer rocketed a low missile that bounded onto the putting surface and left everyone smiling.

“My point there was to show him that you can do things sometimes you don’t think you can do,” he says. “If you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

Aside from underscoring life lessons, however, Palmer, doesn’t brag about his accomplishments. He remains humble, a characteristic common in this working-class mill town and a virtue instilled by Pap.

I ask Palmer to recount a long-ago episode from his career, but instead he counters with a query of his own.“Have you read my book?”

“Yes.”

“Then you already know,” he says with a wink.

• • •

Before I depart Latrobe, Jerry Palmer offers a final, revealing anecdote about his brother.

In 1996, one of the red pines – lining the left side of the 18th and first holes – that Deacon planted more than a half-century earlier began to die. Plans to take it down halted when Palmer ordered, “Leave it.” The tree remained undisturbed for nearly two years until Palmer’s golf buddy, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, suggested a contest to determine what to do with it. One member proposed carving a wooden statue of Palmer.

“Make it Deke instead of me,” Palmer insisted.

And so it was done.

I drive down Legends Drive understanding why Palmer chooses to return every season to Latrobe, and why he’ll spend his 80th birthday here. His celebrity status doesn’t matter here. He’s just Arnold, a beloved son and bedrock of the community. When Palmer decides it’s time to “disappear,” it won’t be hard to find him.

He’ll be at home.

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