At 80, ‘The King’ Still Rules
LATROBE, Pa. - A catcher's mitt, a fielder's glove and a baseball rest on a chair in the workshop at Arnold Palmer's office, just across the street from Latrobe Country Club, where Palmer has lunch most days from May to October.
Palmer, an uncommon commoner who became "The King" of golf, has had baseball on his mind.
Palmer turns 80 on Sept. 10, but he'll be celebrating long before that, including Sept. 8, when he'll throw out the ceremonial first pitch at PNC Park as the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Chicago Cubs.
There's no doubt he'll get a standing ovation even if he one-hops the pitch, but Palmer is too proud to risk it. He and his pilot, Pete Luster, have been playing catch for weeks in preparation for one throw.
"Do you wear a mask?" Luster is asked.
"Oh no," he says. "Arnie throws it right in there."
Celebrations for Palmer will run for days here in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands and at his winter home in Orlando.
"I tell him that by the time he finishes all these birthday parties he'll be 84," says Dow Finsterwald, a retired touring pro whose friendship with Palmer dates to college golf in the 1950s.
On this late August day, Palmer, his wife, Kit, and Luster sit at a table with friends at the club. Nearby are Jim Bryan, one of Palmer's favorite golfing partners, and Doc Giffin, his assistant.
Palmer's schedule was routine: Up early, in his office before 9 for business meetings, phone calls and interviews. Lunch at the club and then golf. Whether at Latrobe or Bay Hill in Orlando, there's seldom a day that Palmer doesn't hit a golf ball.
"Golf is still a challenge for me," says Palmer, sitting behind his desk at the office before lunch. "That's the mystique of the game. You never give up on trying to be better, regardless of your age."
An 'Army' of followers
When Palmer burst onto the scene with his victory in the 1958 Masters and then added the 1960 Masters and U.S. Open, he was a blacksmith in a cashmere cardigan - broad shoulders, thick forearms and huge hands over a narrow waist.
The late sportswriter Jim Murray described him as "stronger than truckstop coffee."
Golf on television was in its infancy, and Palmer was its perfect star. Crowds - which came to be known as "Arnie's Army" - adored his swashbuckling style.
Fifty years later, he's still trim and fit, but the years have taken the chiseled features of his youth and the power game he used to play. Palmer, who finished his career with seven majors and 62 victories, played his last PGA Tour event in 2004. His last Champions Tour event was in 2006.
"I'm not worth a darn anymore," he says. "But golf keeps me going."
Jack Nicklaus, who supplanted Palmer as the game's best player by the mid-1960s, is amused by Palmer's dogged determination to keep playing, but he respects his love of the game.
At The Masters in April, Nicklaus asked his old foe and now dear friend how he was playing.
"Oh, horrible," Palmer answered.
"How much are you playing?" Nicklaus asked.
"Every day," Palmer answered.
Nicklaus, 69, plays about once a month, but he expects Palmer to be playing when he's 90, and he expects to ask the same question and get the same answer.
"How are you playing?" Nicklaus deadpans.
"Terrible," he answers, mimicking Palmer.
No place is Palmer more revered than at Augusta National, where he and Nicklaus will tee it up side by side in April as honorary starters at The Masters.
Palmer is a member of 100 golf clubs around the world, but the majority of his rounds are played at Latrobe Country Club and Bay Hill. He owns Latrobe and shares ownership of Bay Hill.
Latrobe is his ancestral home. It was where he was taught the game by his father, Deacon, the greenskeeper and pro. Bay Hill is his adopted home.
"I started out here when I was 3," Palmer says. "I'm still here. Golf is part of that challenge that I talk about. It has been my life."
Winner on the business side
Although recreational golf is central to Palmer's life, it was his professional success, coupled with his personality and looks, that made him a bigger success in business.
"His world is fascinating," says Charlie Mechem, who spent 10 years as his business consultant. "Nothing happens in golf that isn't run by him. When ideas come up, people want his advice and ultimately his approval."
Palmer owns a golf course design business and a golf course services business. His company has about 300 golf courses around the world.
Palmer has played golf with presidents, business moguls and entertainers, but his favorite partners carry low handicaps.
Bryan, one of Palmer's partners at Latrobe, is a dentist and a 12-time club champion. They play about four times a week.
"I have patients who call my office in the mornings and say, 'I see the sun's shining. Should I reschedule?' " Bryan says.
Bruce Walters, a car dealer from Kentucky, estimates he has played 1,000 rounds of golf with Palmer. For Walters, 62, every round seems surreal, because in 1960 he attended The Masters and watched Palmer earn the second of his four victories at Augusta National.
"I think about it almost every time we go to the first tee," Walters says. "I can't believe a little ol' boy from Pike County, Ky., just a used car salesman from up the road, is playing golf with Arnold Palmer. He's bigger than life to me."
Palmer is a stickler for the rules of golf - with one exception.
"He violates the 14-club rule all the time," Bryan says.
Palmer carries two bags on his cart, 35 to 50 clubs in any one round, Bryan says.
"One day I played with him, and so help me, he had 10 drivers in his bag," Walters says. "After nine holes he said, 'I'll meet you at the 10th tee.'
"When he got to 10, I said, 'Where'd you go?' He said, 'Oh, I had another driver in the house I'd like to try.' "
His friends know that age and arthritis have taken a toll on his game.
"He doesn't hit it as far as he used to or as far as he wants to," Walters says. "But he still hits it far enough."
Tragedy amid triumphs
Palmer's 80 years haven't been all fairy tale, nor has be been spared the heartbreaks of life.
Buddy Worsham, a friend since junior golf and a teammate at Wake Forest, was killed in an automobile crash in 1950. Others who are now part of his life in memory are Dwight Eisenhower, the president who Palmer said "was like a second father to me"; his parents, Deke and Doris; and his first wife, Winnie, who died of cancer in 1999. A portrait of her dominates his office at Latrobe.
"I don't think I can say anything that can save people from the grief and sadness of life," he says. "I can only say they have to make the best of it."
Although Buddy and Winnie were the deepest hurts, Palmer persevered. He made new friends. He found a new wife.
"It was a fixer-upper," said Kit, 70. "Some friends fixed us up with a dinner date, and it worked."
Palmer had surgery for prostate cancer in 1997 and recovered, so he threw his support to cancer research.
His birthday celebration will be a family affair. Kit is involved in the parties in Pennsylvania and Florida. Palmer's daughter, Peggy, 53, will help in Latrobe; his daughter, Amy, 51, will lend a hand in Orlando. His six grandkids will play a role.
"He's very sensitive," Kit said. "Most people don't know that. Under his looks are a soft shell."
He keeps striving to be a better pilot, and even a better golfer.
"He can't play golf as well as he once did, and that disappoints him," Kit said. "I jokingly tell him, 'If you hadn't been so good, it wouldn't be so difficult to accept.' "