'Passion project:' Golf Channel debuts 'Arnie' Sunday night

Izzy DeHerrera works on the Golf Channel's Arnold Palmer documentary.

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s a little more than two weeks until opening night, well beyond ordinary crunch time, and inside a dark and diminutive post-editing room at Golf Channel’s headquarters, producer Israel DeHerrera is trying to heroically scramble – the very trademark of his star subject in the upcoming three-episode documentary he’s feverishly trying to complete.

Sporting a blue Argentina track top and brown tam-o’-shanter, DeHerrera, known as Izzy, intensely lays down audio tracks, laboring over each second of video on the screen in front of him. An artificial golf-ball sound effect over a poetic, slow-motion Arnold Palmer swing? He turns and pounds a note into the keyboard of his computer; no, that won’t make the cut.

A vampire likely sees more daylight than DeHerrera has since Dec. 1, when his 12-hour production/editing days at GC and night-time film sessions at home ramped up in an effort to complete the most ambitious documentary in Golf Channel’s near-two-decade history. Standing about 5 feet, 9 inches and sporting square glasses, DeHerrera, a 5-handicap, eats a small lunch as he works and breaks only rarely to get an infusion of fresh air.

“Full immersion,” is how Golf Channel president Mike McCarley describes DeHerrera’s work ethic. “When we started this project, Izzy was 6 foot 4.”

A 13-time Emmy Award-winning producer and golf junkie who came to Golf Channel in 2012 in large part to do this very project (it’s a family affair: his wife, Joanne Chiang, is a Golf Channel production manager), DeHerrera has his fingerprints on everything to do with “Arnie,” a prime-time event that will air over three one-hour episodes on consecutive nights beginning at 10 p.m. on Masters Sunday, April 13. The series, screenwritten by Aaron Cohen, will be shown with limited commercial interruption, each episode consuming 54 minutes (or 10 minutes more than the network norm).

“Arnie” has been heavily promoted, and the project’s daunting task and mission is captured in the documentary’s very first line: How do you tell the story of a life that’s larger than life?

“Arnie” does so smartly, taking three hours to tell the story of the King’s golf, life and legacy, which means quality time can be devoted to important subjects. Subjects such as Winnie Palmer, who kept the superstar’s family grounded (“Arnold has had his share of good fortune in life,” his late lawyer and agent, Mark McCormack, once told The New York Times, “and the best fortune of all was marrying Winnie”); subjects such as Palmer’s 50-year run at Augusta, and his longstanding business relationship with McCormack, the IMG founder; and subjects such as the tragedy that would indelibly shape Palmer’s early life, the death of childhood friend Bud Worsham, his Wake Forest teammate killed in a car accident returning to campus on homecoming night in October 1950.

“I didn’t know the story, and I didn’t know the impact that losing your best friend when you’re 20 years old would have on the rest of your life,” said Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon, who gets chills talking about that segment, which is told mostly in Palmer’s words. She notes that at Wake Forest today, there not only exists an Arnold Palmer Scholarship, but a Bud Worsham Scholarship that Palmer funds. “There are so many parts to Arnold’s life,” she said, “and we wanted to do them all justice.”

Over three episodes and three nights, the footage and the interviews do not feel rushed. Six themed vignettes compose each of the three episodes, creating mini-stories that could stand on their own, yet linked together tell an intriguing narrative, like chapters in a book.

Opening night addresses Arnie and his bustling army of worshippers – the scenes of fans filling fairways behind him on final holes at the Masters and Open Championship still will stop you in amazement – and touches on his simple upbringing in Latrobe, Pa., and the personal relationships that shaped his life. There is an Episode 1 segment titled “Arnie’s Army” that shows Palmer’s barn in Latrobe, which houses every fan letter he has ever received. Boxes and boxes of letters. He responds to all, which is the essence of the man, and was the seed planted in McCarley that made for a perfect bridge into this project. He knew that Palmer, a humble man, would resist a mega-documentary on his life. But what if Palmer could write a single letter to all his fans? And what if those fans, McCarley said, could write one back to say ‘Thanks’?

“That’s sort of the embodiment of what we were trying to accomplish,” McCarley said.

Part 2 of “Arnie” focuses mostly on Palmer’s golf, tracing his many highs and lows at the major championships, and how he invigorated the Open Championship in 1960-61. There’s plenty of heartache; he could have won at least four U.S. Opens (he won one, and lost three in playoffs). This piece is essential, says Solomon, as his younger generation of fans may not realize how dominant a player Palmer was in the late 1950s through mid-1960s.

A final episode gives an in-depth look at Palmer’s legacy, including his longstanding relevance as a celebrity A-lister and the business blueprint that keeps the 84-year-old Palmer among the top-earning athletes in sports, even today. (Pennzoil, anyone?)

Sure, considering that Palmer is one of America’s most iconic, beloved figures, many stories already have been told, yet “Arnie” delivers a depth and attention to detail that will transcend into an educational experience for even the most loyal of Palmer’s enlisted soldiers. The staircase where Palmer met Winifred “Winnie” Walzer at the Shawnee Inn in Pennsylvania? A crew was sent to shoot it. More than 125 interviews were conducted, most by DeHerrera, and tens of thousands of pictures were pored through. There was so much never-before-aired footage (including Deke Palmer’s home films of Augusta National) that everything could not possibly be included. (At press time, with the third episode being edited, it appeared an impromptu lesson Palmer received from Jack Nicklaus a few years back might not make the cut.)

Those who view “Arnie” surely will learn something about the man. Ask Mason Seay, who returned to Golf Channel as an associate producer on the project. His late father, Ed Seay, was Palmer’s course-design partner for 35 years, and Mason has known Palmer for a majority of his 46 years. “I thought I knew a lot about the man, and I learned so much more,” he said.

Outside of not seeing much of his 14-month-old daughter, Josie, of late (interesting aside: she was born at Orlando’s Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies), DeHerrera said he doesn’t mind having had only three days off in four months. This project truly has awakened him.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve done,” said DeHerrera, who salutes the invaluable help of his support staff at GC as well as Cori Britt, a vice president at Arnold Palmer Enterprises. “This is a passion project. I could be spending less time on it. I don’t have to go home and watch it all night long. But my name is attached to it, and I want it to be as good as it can possibly be.”

On Wednesday of last week, McCarley and Solomon, who worked alongside DeHerrera at several Olympic Games for NBC (Golf Channel is part of the NBC Sports Group), sat and discussed the culture they’ve aimed to create: One of quality in everything that the network does. On that day, Golf Channel garnered four Emmy nominations, its most ever.

“Hopefully that’s a step in the right direction,” McCarley said. “I think this (“Arnie”) probably will be the best example of a quality project that we’ve done to date.”

Keith Allo, Golf Channel’s VP of programming and original productions, said “Arnie” could pave the way for more documentaries of its kind, though in the near future, perhaps only Jack Nicklaus’ life story would command as much time and scope.

“What makes this feel bigger is the subject,” Allo said. “There’s just not many Arnold Palmers out there.”

Allo notes that DeHerrera’s over-the-top commitment is driven by wanting to tell the story well, knowing one Arnold Daniel Palmer, who committed 12-plus hours of interview time, will be watching. Recently, McCarley was asking Palmer, who has seen parts of it, if he’d be viewing the documentary in its entirety.

Palmer looked McCarley squarely in the eye, and told him, “I lived it.”

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification