Arnie at home
While his friends practice their putting near the first tee at the Latrobe Country Club Arnold Palmer is talking on his cellular phone at the edge of the practice green; he’s holding the phone in his right hand and stroking putts with his left. The course that he has owned since 1971 and where he grew up in a home beside the fifth tee flows placidly out and around from this high point. Down there a ways, beside the fifth tee, is the place where his father Deke and mother Doris raised their first son Arnold and his brother Jerry and sisters Lois Jean and Sandy. Deke Palmer helped build this bucolic course, then became its superintendent and subsequently its professional.
Palmer spends his afternoons here golfing on many afternoons from May through September, when he lives in his unpretentious home across the street from the course. Today I feel privileged to be joining him for a round; after a lifetime of following Palmer and 20 years of writing about him, I have come to the place he loves to share a game with him. For me it is a pilgrimage of sorts, the chance to spend a few hours with the King, as Palmer is often called, in the place where he is just a regular guy
Now it is early in the afternoon, and Arnie — as his pals call him on the course and as the golf world best knows this most popular of all players — is off the phone and will not talk on it during the round. The bets are being made; a variety of wagers that set my head spinning, lots of action although not for much money, thankfully. There is an overall skins game among 12 golfers in three foursomes, team bets group to group, team bets within foursomes, individual games. I also have a game with Palmer; we will play what Arnie calls a "walk-in;" this is a straight match-play game over 18 holes. Our game is for serious money, five bucks, Canadian.
As we roll our practice putts, club champion Jim Bryant tells a story. He will join Palmer, me and Howdy Giles, Palmer’s dentist and close friend from Wilmington, Del. Bryant went to high school with Palmer’s daughter Amy and is remembering the time he shagged balls for the King at Statler’s Golf Center, a range out on Highway 30 in the hills of central Pennsylvania near here.
"That was one of the greatest thrills of my life," Bryant says. " I was shagging balls for Arnie during a clinic at Statler’s. My responsibility was to shag the balls that went longer than 275 yards." Left unspoken is the fact that Arnie was regularly hitting his drives that long.
Palmer is in the middle of the green now, finalizing his wagers. I’m trying to negotiate an extra stroke or two from him. But he’s tough, and won’t let himself lose any bets on the first tee.
"What’d you say your handicap is, Lorne?" Arnie yells across the green. "Four," I tell him, "but I’ll be working, taking notes. Besides, you know this course."
"Four, huh? I’m scratch (zero) so I’ll give you the four shots," Arnie says. No further discussion. And Arnie is equally stern with everybody else. "Nobody gets any shots in the skins game," he announces. "We’ll play two dollar skins, so the most anybody can lose is $36. You don’t want in, say so now."
Arnie winks at me, letting me know his toughness is a bit of an act, but that he can get away with it here. And probably everywhere, I figure. This is Arnold Palmer, after all, an icon in golf as Muhammad Ali was and is in boxing, as Joe Dimaggio was and is in baseball.
Lee Trevino puts it this way: "Arnie has more people watching him park the car than we do on the course." But not today, because this is just a guy who loves to golf and is about to go out for an afternoon round on his home track. His pals respect him enough not to bring a crowd of followers. Nobody is here but the golfers, and the first foursome scampers down the slope to the tee. Our group is up first. Arnie takes a golf ball from each of us and throws the four balls up in the air. Mine and Bryant’s fall near one another, and so we will take on Arnie and Giles in a team game within our group.
The first hole is a 401-yard par-four. The tee is well-elevated above the fairway, with trees right and left. Happily, I’m calm, elevated by the company, the camaraderie and easy feelings that Arnie generates wherever he goes. It doesn’t matter that we are part of Arnie’s foursome today, not Arnie’s Army. He’s the same guy in a tournament or a casual round. He’ll look you in the eye in the crowd at the Masters around a tee and does the same here on the tee before you play. But first he rips one down the fairway. Then he says, "go ahead, your turn," pointing at me.
Happily, I’m calm. I zone in and nail a drive down the right side of the fairway with a slight fade. It just catches the right rough, but it’s down there, long and in play. Whew.
Arnie and I walk down the hill to the fairway as his caddie Scott drives the cart. Arnie likes to walk, and hates the trend towards forcing people to use carts. "I build walking paths on all my courses," Arnie says of his work as a course architect. "I do ride from green to tee on some of these new developments, though, where they’re 200-300 yards apart."
We talk about Latrobe, and this place that he calls home. Arnie also has a house in Orlando, and is a principal owner of the Bay Hill club there. But that’s his winter home, the place that came after. After all this, after his folks raised him right in rolling farmland 40 miles east of Pittsburgh.
"Our accountants have told us that for tax reasons we should have our principal residence in Florida," Palmer says of advice he and Winnie, his wife of 41 years, have received. "But I love it here. We have made a very firm decision to stay right here."
Palmer’s drive is 20 yards by mine; a yard a year, considering the difference in our ages. And he’s lost a yard a year since he was in his mid-40s. He can still bring it out there.
We’re on our way. Life is good.
This is Arnold Palmer country allright. Sure, he is popular all over the world, but this remains his place, his centre. He really is the King here, and you feel his influence from whatever direction you approach Latrobe. As it happens, I’ve driven west from Baltimore for this game with Arnie, a couple of weeks before he will play the du Maurier Champions, a Senior PGA Tour event at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ancaster, Ont. He plans to arrive Wednesday June 12th, the day before the du Maurier Champions begins.
Arnie has good feelings about Canada; he won the 1955 Canadian Open at Weston in Toronto, his first victory as a professional. There’s a grouping of photos and material on the wall above the double doors into his office across from the club that testifies to the victory; it includes a nice message from Gordon Delaat, then the professional at Weston. That was a long time ago; Palmer has played many Canadian Opens since, and won the 1980 Canadian PGA Championship in Edmonton. He, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player also filmed a match for the old Big Three television show at Royal Montreal Golf Club.
Driving to Latrobe, I get off Interstate 76 and head north on a country road. There’s a sense that things don’t change much here; U.S. flags are flying in front of some of the clapboard houses; there’s a chicken and biscuit dinner June 8th in a community center; cabins are visible in the woods, while men wade hip-high in streams, fly-fishing the languid afternoon away.
Up the two-lane blacktop I notice the Ligonier Country Club and hit the brakes as I drive past. Backing up, I swing into the entrance and find my way to the pro shop. Palmer played matches here for his high school in Latrobe against the high school in Ligonier when the schools were part of the same district 50 years ago. Club pro Lou Asti Jr. is in the shop, arranging a club event for the Memorial Day weekend. In a minute he’s speaking about Arnie.
"He’s my hero, he’s my king," Asti, a friendly middle-aged man, says. "Take a look at this photo here," he says, pointing out a black-and-white shot of Palmer, signed, "To Lou, Best of luck and best regards. Arnold Palmer." Asti has other signed photos of Palmer at his home, but now wants to talk about Arnie’s powerful if less than orthodox swing, about which Los Angeles Times writer Jim Murray once observed: "He had the 10-handicapper’s swipe at the ball, finishing in the strange overhead power lock of a guy trying to block out the hook. The club looked like a Roman candle."
But Asti knows it’s truly a classic swing where it counts-at impact. Palmer wouldn’t have won 61 PGA Tour events and seven major championships if he hit the ball like a 10-handicapper. Asti pulls out a photograph of Palmer at impact to prove his point.
"If this isn’t perfect, then I don’t know perfect," Asti exclaims of Palmer’s position just through the ball, where his head is dead still behind the ball and his right arm is extended well down the target line. "Hey buddy, this will last," Asti elaborates. "People say with his finish he couldn’t play. Even his old high school coach told Arnie once that he should settle down because he could never make a living in golf. But he showed us, didn’t he? Anybody denies he’s the King has three weeks of ‘shame on you.’"
Out on his course, Palmer starts with a couple of pars. He stands over a 20’ birdie putt on the first hole, his trademark knock-kneed stance still there as if it were yesterday and he was holing putts to birdie six of the first seven holes of the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver; Palmer went on to erase a seven-shot deficit after three rounds to win that championship. But the putt on the first green runs just over the edge, dead weight and speed. Arnie swivels his head in agony, as if to say, "how could that miss?" The guy wants every putt, bad. He’s got one objective: to rap that ball in the hole.
The second hole is a 126-yard downhiller, prime real estate for a hole-in-one. Arnie hunches over the ball and stares down the hole cut in the right rear portion of the green, and with an actor’s sense of timing, looks up just before he starts his swing. He stares at his three companions and asks, no, declares, "you guys are in the whip-out, aren’t you?"
I’ve no idea what he means, and ask him. "You make an ace, the other guys whip out 50 bucks from their pockets," Arnie explains. Sure, I’m in. His pal Giles says, "And he’s done it, he’s made us whip that cash out."
Arnie’s punch shot is on the flag all the way, but comes up short. Walking to the green, he tells of the time he, Nicklaus and Player were in the same threesome at the Tradition tournament in Scottsdale, AZ..
"Gary made a one on the seventh," Arnie relates, "and I asked him how many holes-in-one he had. He’d had 17. I said, ‘that’s interesting, I’ve also had 17.’ Jack heard us talking and said, ‘You’re kidding, I’ve also made 17.’"
Arnie just misses his birdie putt again and gives me his "you’re lucky" look. Then he points out Riley’s Pond behind the second green. Riley was his Golden Retriever, and liked to frolic in the pond. Now a plaque beside the pond honours him; Riley died three years ago and has been replaced by Prince. The Prince usually travels with the King, by car, in Arnie’s private plane, along the fields and country roads here, around the course.
On to the third tee now. Doc Giffin, Palmer’s ever-affable personal assistant of 30 years, is standing by a white fence at the side of the tee. He calls Arnie over to give him a quick update on a business matter. Arnie has a word with him, then gets back to the real business of the moment. He nails his drive down the fairway, then walks down, talking about swimming with water snakes in the ponds on this property as a kid. As he walks he takes a knife from his pocket and unwraps the leather grip from the driver he has just hit; Arnie does this frequently because he likes to experiment with clubs. He’s always trying something new, always designing, fixing, fiddling. In fact, there are two bags full of clubs on the cart that his caddie Scott is driving. The two bags hold some 50 clubs in all, and Arnie experiments with most of them today.
Down the course we go, up and down the rolling hills. On the fifth tee Arnie points to a maintenance shed 25 yards away and an adjacent field with a few vehicles, and says, "This is where I grew up. This is where our house was. And that’s where I played football and baseball as a kid." Arnie points to a playing field across the road.
This hole is also the site of a Palmer legend. A stream crosses the fairway 100 yards out from the tee, and when Palmer was five years old he would whack balls across the water for a nickel for some of the women who couldn’t make the carry on their own. Palmer’s father had first made a set of clubs for his son when he was three years old; the rest is history, history still being played out all around the world of golf.
To spend time with Palmer at his home course in his home state in the landscape he loves is to appreciate that here is a man deeply connected to his past. And it is to understand the influence of Deke Palmer on his son. Palmer jumps into his cart and invites me along for a ride; he wants to examine a turf nursery on the ground where his home as a boy stood and to speak for a moment about the past, a past that lives with him every moment even now.
"I remember playing here like it was yesterday," Arnie says. "My dad was a great person, but he was a strong man, very disciplined."
I mention a story I had read about how Palmer’s dad would let him know it in no uncertain times if he did something wrong; even into Palmer’s thirties.
"Let me know it? Are you kidding?" Palmer answers. "Yes sir, he would let me know it."
Deke Palmer died in 1976, five years after his son bought the Latrobe Country Club. The scorecard has the name Arnold Palmer on it as club president, Bruce Rearick as club professional, and also an entry about Arnie’s dad. It reads, simply, "M.J. (Deke) Palmer, LCC 1921-1976)."
Deke’s presence is felt everywhere here. His double locker remains as it was the day he died, with the same things in it. There’s a revealing colour snapshot of him above the locker; it shows a man whose face is lined by all the weather he has seen in all the years he has spent outdoors here, and he looks then much like the man his son would grow into.
There’s also another photo in Arnie’s handsome office across the road in the pleasant, treed compound that contains his house and workshop. The black and white photo shows Arnie with his right hand on his dad’s left shoulder. There is no mistaking the bond between the men.
"That’s my favourite picture of the two of them," Doc Giffin says.
Arnie is on the 10th tee, a killer par-three that is playing 228 yards to the hole cut to the right rear of the green, not far from a sand trap. He’s shot even-par 36 on the front side, missing a handful of putts by a whisker. He’s got a one-iron in his hand, and aims between the bunker and the pin. It’s a gutsy shot, and he hits a beauty.
The ball turns slightly right to left, always working towards the hole. It’s Arnie’s famous "go for broke" philosophy, another aspect of the man that has never changed. His ball lands 25’ short of the hole and starts rolling. "Go in," he yells, like any golfer at any course anywhere, wishing and hoping, imploring, demanding.
The ball comes up short, and soon Arnie holes it for birdie. He gives us the Palmer grin and pumps his right fist. Birdie with a one-iron in your hand: Now that’s golfing your ball.
"I was thinking about the skin on that one," Arnie says, and no wonder. Nobody is going to birdie this hole.
We stop for a cold drink, and Arnie spots a young woman in the halfway house. She’s a college golfer. Arnie engages her in conversation, encouraging her. Then we move on; I’m already three down to Arnie and soon will run out of holes. I’m hitting the ball well, but my swing is slightly out of synch. I’m hitting sand wedges 50’ by the hole, three-putting; I guess I really am more anxious playing with Arnie than following him or writing about him. Surprise, surprise.
But Arnie has to give me a shot on the 11th, so there’s hope. I make par, as he does, and am now only two down; maybe there’s still a chance for me.
The 12th is a 335-yard hole; a stream crosses the fairway 245 yards out. Arnie pulls out his driver and says, "This hole will determine my future in golf. When I can’t carry the water anymore, I quit."
Today he carries the water, no problem. Walking down the fairway, he points out three covered bridges that give the course added character, and mentions that his dad put them in. Walking on, we speak about the costs of time.
"One of the things I seem to have lost is the ability to score," Arnie says. "It’s hard to put it down to any one thing. It’s just that I always had a knack for getting the ball in the hole from whatever position I was in. And another thing is that in my best years I always felt if I wanted to move the ball out I could always find another 10 or 20 yards. It was there. Now that’s difficult."
As difficult as it might be, Palmer still is hitting the ball quite long today. After his birdie on the 10th, he’s been playing steadily on, par after par. Then, on the final hole, he lets out some shaft and gets well up the steep hill on the way to the 18th green in front of the modest but elegant clubhouse. In Latrobe language, he’s "mamooed" his drive; long and straight, that is.
The hole is cut to the front right of the three-tiered green; there’s not much room there at all to land a ball. No problem; Arnie shapes a shot in there about 10’ right of the hole, then holes the putt for a closing birdie and a two-under par 34 on the back side. He shoots 70. I shoot 81, and he beats me three and two. It’s a privilege to lose to the King. Well, hell; that’s only partly true. I would have enjoyed winning.
The Golf Channel is on all the time in the grill room; Arnie is the chairman of the board of the 24-hour a day network and says it’s going to succeed. He drinks a Jack Daniel’s while the guys tote up the wagers. Arnie is a man in his element, full of good humour.
His buddy Giles catches me looking at a famous illustration that artist Leroy Neiman did of Arnie; it’s hanging on the wall above the fireplace. Giles tells me it’s based on a photo he took of Arnie; he’s always snapping pictures, a man bent on documenting Arnie’s life whenever he can. Arnie overhears Giles telling me of the photo and good-naturedly ribs his friend.
"The painting isn’t so famous," Arnie says. "But the photo sure is."
Arnie is going over one of his matches, by memory, with one of the golfers. He’s also looking at a log of the day’s phone calls that Doc Giffin has provided him, while glancing at the tournament on the television and sipping his drink. I reach over to give him the five-dollar Canadian bill that he won from me.
"Nah, I won’t take that," Arnie says, then signs the bill at my request. "But I’ll tell you what. I’d take one of those new coins you’ve got, a two-dollar coin isn’t it? I’ll use it as a ball marker in Canada."
I haven’t got a twonie in my pocket, but there’s one somewhere in my car. We walk to the parking lot, and I find the coin and give it to him. Then he and Giles get in Arnie’s Cadillac and drive off into the Pennsylvania early evening.
But Arnie will come back across the street to his club on the weekend; he’ll participate in some way in Memorial Day weekend festivities. Despite his fame, Arnie has remained, as Giffin observes, "the common man with the common touch."
Giles certainly knows this, and had told a story of the time he asked actor Jack Lemmon about a round he had with Arnie. Lemmon made a pertinent observation about Arnie, of whom it is often said "He made golf what it is today," that is, a game that people of all ages and from all walks of life enjoy.
"People say Arnie has charisma," Lemmon told Giles. "But there’s another word too. He has grace. Think about what that word means to you. I’ll bet you can’t say that about five friends that you have."
Arnie’s grace and common touch must derive from his connectedness to this place. That a man of such fame and influence and wealth should remain essentially unmarked by all that can corrupt and separate, even isolated, is interesting in itself. This is not to say that Palmer has not had his reversals on and off the course — he has, but has dealt with them squarely. And through it all he somehow seems to have not travelled very far at all from Latrobe.
As I drive back to Toronto, I think about this aspect of the man — the way he has anchored himself by choice to Latrobe. To travel as far as he has and to remain in the same place; to accomplish so much in his chosen field and remain as if he had stayed at home working on the course, making the grass grow — Deke’s boy. This, I think, is Arnold Palmer’s accomplishment — that with all his success he can in a few hours around the place where he grew up and still lives show a visitor the critical importance of home, and of remaining constant, and consistent.
"I love it here." Palmer’s words as we walked down the first fairway rumble around in my mind as I drive through the night. Home is who we are, and Arnold Palmer knows who he is.