Up Close With the Incredible Mr. Palmer

(photo courtesy of The First Tee of Pittsburgh)

Arnold Palmer was a friend of mine. I figure his friends number in the hundreds of thousands — or even millions — as he seemed to bond with everyone who was lucky enough to spend time with him.

He displayed warmth and genuine interest to all the people he encountered, even during short conversations. Whether he was interacting with golfers or non-golfers, Mr. Palmer had the gift of making anyone feel like the most important person in the world.

He had this effect as he talked with people or just with a look, nod and smile. He was truly amazing.

In the world of personal connection, emotional Intelligence is the counterpart to IQ. Mr. Palmer had a higher EQ, by far, than anyone I’ve ever met. We all know or have seen individuals with the ability to pull others into their orbit. I have witnessed this same affinity with my  father-in-law, President Bill Clinton and baseball Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. Mr. Palmer, though, was the King of EQ. He constantly seemed attuned to those around him.

I had the pleasure of playing golf twice with the great man at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, where he grew up and developed his gift for playing the game. Later he bought the facility. Our games were a convivial stroll through the rolling terrain. He eagerly collected his winnings from our Nassau, beating me just enough to keep the match interesting. The outcome, of course, always seemed completely in his control.

He peppered the play with memories and feelings. On one hole he pointed to a 30-foot pine and said he remembered the day he and his dad planted it. On the back nine there was a par-four with a creek requiring a 215-yard carry to clear off the tee. I had the honor and laid up. Mr. Palmer flew it, looked back at me and said with a chuckle, “I’ll quit playing when I can’t make that carry.” I don’t know whether he held to that.

On the property was an old barn. I was told that his wife Winnie used it for crafts and gardening. He reinforced this with incredible affection as he did with all his observations. He told me how much he loved Latrobe and that he and Winnie planned to go “toes up” there. He asked me if I knew what that meant and I told him I did. This seemed to please him.

He may have shared these same intimate thoughts with many others, but it didn’t matter. He was openly confiding little treasured bits of information as if we were close friends. I basked in the glow of his revelations. It wasn’t a bit calculated on his part. It was just his magic.

(photo courtesy of The First Tee of Pittsburgh)

The Palmer residence is close to Latrobe C.C. I don’t want to give the exact location, though I’m sure practically every resident in the area knows precisely where it is. It is a compound with a house (maybe two now), a small one-story office building and his famous workshop filled with thousands upon thousands of clubs.

The driveway has a gate, but I’ve never seen it closed. Anyone could drive right in and be welcomed. His private space was approachable. I don’t think there was a pretentious bone in his body. He spent approximately six months a year in Latrobe and came to the office every day. There were many guests. I was there when some Iraqi war veterans contacted the office and were told to “come on over.”

The office doubled as the Arnold Palmer Museum. There were trophies, Ryder Cup bags, sets of clubs with which he’d won major tournaments and so many photos. One wall was filled with framed shots of Mr. Palmer with Republican presidents. Another had the Democrats.

My favorite piece was a coffee table with circular holes drilled in the surface and filled with various championship medals he had won. When a new medal was added, another hole was drilled and left empty. He didn’t want the table finished. There was more work to be done, another victory medal to be added to the collection. For all his affability, Mr. Palmer burned to win. I think that stayed with him until he took his last breath.

I founded The First Tee of Pittsburgh in 2000. I contacted his office and asked him to be our Honorary Chairman. I didn’t think that he would agree, but he did, with the caveat that the time he could devote was limited. He far exceeded everything he promised. He made donations. He made introductions to those he thought might want to be involved. He allowed us to use his name and image, and he appeared in our public service announcements.

We brought a crew out to film three 30-second PSAs. He was handed the scripts. After looking at them for about a minute each, he delivered three perfect performances on the first take. Not only were they technically correct, but he also managed to convey his warmth, charm and belief in what The First Tee stood for. I am convinced that DeNiro, Streep or Olivier could not have nailed it more quickly or made it look so easy. He could because he had plenty of experience doing these things. He was not acting.

Much has been written about how Arnold Palmer brought golf to the masses. His emergence, paired with television becoming the country’s dominant mass medium, turned golf into a big money sport. His popularity created billions of dollars for future PGA Tour players. Many charities benefitted from Tour events, and so did golf course operators and residential golf developers.

When the Senior (Champions) Tour consisted of only a handful of tournaments, Mr. Palmer was a couple of years from turning 50. The USGA Senior Amateur was a long-established tournament with a minimum entry age of 55, but Palmer’s soon-to-be 50th birthday was a good reason to transform the starting age for professional senior golf from 55 to 50.

That tour boomed. Pros who may have thought their competitive money-earning days were over suddenly had new life as players. Mr. Palmer spearheaded a second chance for many professional golfers.

However, the biggest group of recipients of the Arnold Palmer windfall effect were the millions of everyday players drawn into taking up golf.  They were motivated by he King’s popularity, and golf grew into a major-league sport.

Whether their handicaps were 3 or 30, amateur golfers were showered with joy and pleasure. Their experiences could be traced directly to Mr. Palmer’s ascendency. This was his greatest gift to golf. From Latrobe to the farthest corners of the United States and many other countries, it inspired and continues to touch so many of us.

—Bruce Stephen, Senior Golf Insider