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A Country Club As His Backyard

The great man acknowledges the crowd.

Arnold's father, Milfred Jerome Palmer, known for obscure reasons as Deacon or Deke, was born and raised in Youngstown, the son of a house painter. Preferring the outdoor life to work in the Stygian steel mills, Deacon was one of the laborers who built Latrobe Country Club in the 1920s, a project commissioned by Latrobe Electric Steel in an affluent decade. Later he became greenskeeper and then golf professionalselling equipment and giving lessons at the club. Deke married Doris Morrison and they had four children, starting with Arnold, who was born on September 10, 1929. Two years later there was a sister, Lois Jean, known as Cheech. After a thirteen-year gap there were two more children: Jerry in 1944 and Sandy in 1948.

The members of Latrobe Country Club were a homogeneous group of professionals: doctors from the local hospital, steel mill bosses, and other citizens of substance. That isn't to say the members were bad people. Quite the contrary. Among the original membership were the Rogers, for instance, an upstanding family who owned a die-casting business in Latrobe. They had a son, Fred, who was a year older than Arnie; in adult life he epitomized wholesome, small-town American values as the creator and host of the iconic children's TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That imaginary neighborhood had much in common with Latrobe in the years of Arnie's childhood and youth. Latrobe was an unpretentious, tight-knit community where people respected each other and took an interest in one another's well-being, without overstepping polite inquiry. Your place in the community was part of who you were, as Deacon Palmer told Arnie repeatedly, and this philosophy formed Arnie's character. Perhaps his most marked characteristic is his solicitude. When he talks to you, he seems genuinely interested in what you say and to want to help you. And although Palmer's speaking voice is gruffer than that of the late Fred Rogers, his manner is not altogether dissimilar to the slow and thoughtful way in which Mister Rogers spoke to his young audience.

When he was six, Arnold's family moved into a small wood-frame house backing onto the 6th fairway at Latrobe Country Club. Although Arnold would grow up with the country club as his backyard, Deacon Palmer laid down strict rules about how his children treated the course and other facilities (he had rules about everything). They were certainly not encouraged to use the course as a playground. Instead, they played on the little-used highway in front. "Few if any automobiles came out this way, except to maybe come to the club, so [we] had a great road in front of our house with no traffic that we could play on and ride our bikes," recalls Jerry Palmer. The clubhouse was off-limits, as was the swimming pool. The Palmer kids swam in the stream. And there were few luxuries at home, because money was so tight. "We were very poor," adds Jerry. "During the Depression my parents had to raise farm animals - pigs, chickens - to get along."

To ease his worries, Deacon sometimes drank too much, and he had a temper that he directed at Arnie, the oldest child. But still the boy loved his father, and it was his father who introduced him at the age of three to the game that became his life. "Hit it hard!" Deacon ordered. Then: "Go find it and hit it hard again." For his part, Arnold developed a distinctive style of play on the fairways of Latrobe Country Club that involved hitting the ball low and hard, with a slight curve or "draw." His wasn't an elegant or sophisticated swing. Deacon believed that what felt good was probably right. And Arnold's weak point was his short game, partly because he didn't get enough practice around the greens. (Deacon didn't want Arnie digging lumps out of the precious turf.) But what he lacked in style, Arnie made up for in enthusiasm.

As his interest in golf grew, the boy naturally wanted to play as often as possible, so he would accompany his mother and her friends when they played the course on ladies' day. There was a ditch one hundred yards from the 6th tee that some female players could not clear easily. Helen Fritz had particular difficulty, and so Arnie offered his assistance. "I'll knock your ball over the ditch for a nickel," he suggested, and he did, earning his first money from the game. Mindful of her son's appearance in company, his mother would chide him: "Arnold, pull up your pants and tuck your shirt in." He got into the habit of hitching up his trousers, which became one of his trademark gestures in later life. As he grew older, he worked on the course with his father: tending the fairways, minding the pro shop, and working as a caddie, which meant he could play the course on Mondays, too.

For a short time in high school, Arnold was distracted from golf by football, which was the glamour sport in Latrobe, with most of the male population going to the local stadium on Saturday during the season. He was big and strong enough to be good, and Bob Mazero recalls that he and the other boys at Latrobe High badly wanted Arnie on the football team. But Deacon warned his son that a football injury could derail his golfing, so he gave up on the idea. From the age of twelve, Arnold had been playing in junior tournaments and, increasingly, he was thinking of becoming a professional: a tournament golfer playing for prize money, not a club pro, like his father, at the beck and call of members.

While competing in a junior tournament at Oakland Hills Country Club in Detroit, Arnie met Buddy Worsham, another golf-crazy teenager, who became the most significant friend of his young life. Buddy was from a distinguished golfing family. His elder brother, Lew, won the 1947 U.S. Open and, almost as significantly, in 1953 he won the World Championship of Golf at the Tam O'Shanter Country Club outside Chicago, the first golf tournament televised live across the United States. (Worsham helped get televised golf off to a flying start by holing an improbable eagle for the title.) Buddy told Arnie that after high school he was going to Wake Forest College, a Baptist college near Durham, North Carolina. The climate was so warm down there you could play golf year-round, which sounded like heaven. But Arnie would have been hard-pressed to get a scholarship on the strength of his academic work. He was not the most impressive student at Latrobe High, where he was in a class for the less academically inclined. Neither could his family afford to pay his way. It was fortunate therefore that the athletic director at Wake Forest was persuaded to offer him a sports scholarship.

Golf took up most of his time at college, as well as his recreation time, and Arnie was increasingly successful in amateur events, including winning the West Penn Junior and Amateur tournaments. When he was home, he worked with his dad at the golf course and, one Christmas, as a bricklayer in the steel mills. Holiday jobs gave him pocket money for going to dances and taking girls out. Arnie was swinging carelessly through life - having a wonderful time, in fact-when a tragedy occurred. One Saturday night in the fall of 1950, Buddy asked Arnie if he would like to go on one of their jaunts into Durham, where there was a homecoming dance. Arnie declined, pointing out that they didn't have dates and, anyway, he wanted to stay behind to see a movie. So Buddy went without him. On Sunday morning Arnie woke to the news that Buddy and another boy had died in a car wreck during the night. When he went into town to find out what-had happened, Arnie was given the ghastly task of identifying the bodies, which he recalls as probably the worst shock of his life. In part he blamed himself for what had happened. Had he gone to the dance, as Buddy had asked, Arnie probably would have been the one who drove home and maybe he would have driven more safely. More than half a century later, a photograph of Buddy hangs on the wall of Palmer's Latrobe office.

It was because of his friend's death that Arnie quit Wake Forest in January 1951 and joined the U.S. Coast Guard, serving for three years, initially at Cape May, New Jersey. He did not have much opportunity to practice during his years in the service and won relatively few tournaments, though he got to the fourth round of the 1953 U.S. Amateur. In January 1954 he returned to Wake Forest, where he had been offered a chance to complete his education. Golf took up most of his time, though. That year he won several tournaments, including the Ohio Amateur. Palmer had never taken his education particularly seriously, and when summer came, and he had to choose between studying and playing golf, it was no contest. The dean at Wake Forest warned him about missing classes and, ultimately, Palmer had to leave college without a degree. He went to work for a friend, Bill Wehnes, who sold paint. Palmer became a paint salesman, too, though a good deal of his time was spent playing golf, and his future was decided by one very significant tournament during that summer of 1954.

In August the U.S. Amateur Championship was held at the Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan. Palmer was twentyfour, and it was his fifth attempt at the title, which was the crowning achievement of any amateur career and at that time still considered one of the majors. The format was match play," and a fellow had to win eight matches before he could claim the golden trophy. After some easy matches and some hard fights, Arnie met Bob Sweeny in the 36-hole final. In the 1950s the players who dominated the U.S. Amateur were mature men, many of whom were of independent means. A distinguished gentleman who dressed immaculately for the tournament in white linen, like a character out of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels, Robert Sweeny Jr. was a forty-three-year-old investment banker from New York with a home in Palm Beach, Florida, and another on the French Riviera. Palmer was a simple young man in chinos and a sweaty, short-sleeved shirt who, having flunked out of college, was making a meager living. Yet his lack of sophistication was part of his appeal, together with his audacious style of play and his open, expressive manner. When Arnie hit a poor shot, his disappointment was written on his face. When he struck a good one, he sparked up a cigarette, dragged on it deeply, and stalked down the fairway to go again, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Still, the older man was a fine player, too, the winner of Britain's Amateur Championship in 1937, and he ended the morning round 2-up.

There were 18 more holes in the afternoon, and as the hours of a long, warm day passed, the two men traded birdies. Three times Palmer drew even, before moving ahead at the 32nd and then going 2-up at the 33rd. Sweeny was not done, though. He proved his mettle by halving the 34th and won the penultimate hole. With just one shot in it the tie was still very much alive down to the last, but Sweeny drove into the rough and, having put himself out of contention, conceded. Arnie was the champion, 1-up, winner of the beautiful trophy that had been held by Jones. Doris Palmer hugged Arnie proudly and even Deacon broke into a smile as a brass band struck up. "I've never had a better moment than winning the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1954," says Palmer. "That was the turning point which made everything else possible." The press was delighted with a personable and approachable winner. Arnie was not the most cultured player in the world; he swung like a truck driver. He looked like a greenskeeper. But he made golf exciting, and he was empathetic in a way a high-society figure such as Bob Sweeny was not. Crowds loved Palmer because he was someone like themselves, and that was why the young man from Latrobe would almost single-handedly transform golf from a "snob sport," as Palmer puts it.

He met Winifred Walzer at a tournament in Eastern Pennsylvania. They were married shortly after he turned professional in the fall of 1954 and Winnie traveled with him when he joined the pro tour in early 1955. The Palmers have two daughters - Peggy Palmer Wears, of Durham, NC, and Amy Palmer Saunders, of Windermere, FL. Since Winnie's death from cancer in 1999, Palmer has also established the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at the edge of town, a fond tribute to a beloved spouse. They were a famously close and happy couple, though some friends were taken aback when he started dating again soon after her death, keeping company now with a well-preserved woman in her early sixties by the name of Kathleen Gawthorp, who looks more than a little like Winnie did: petite and pretty and brunette. Arnie always had been popular with women.

Arnold and Player 1961
Arnie hands Player his first Masters Green Jacket in 1961. Palmer finished with a double-bogey on the 72nd hole to finish one stroke back.

With the exception of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland, which is the historic home of golf there is probably no golf club in the world so famous as the Augusta National, and no golf championship - Britain's Open notwithstanding - is as celebrated as Augusta's invitational. To Palmer, the Masters is everything. Great golfers have been defined by their performances in the Masters since the first tournament was held in 1934.

In fact, it was more than he could bear to say good-bye "[It's] kinda sad, because I'm not going to be playing anymore. I'm not very happy about that," said Palmer, reflecting back home in Latrobe on the 2002 tournament shortly after saying good-bye to Augusta. As he spoke, he became quickly and surprisingly emotional all over again. His voice thickened. His eyes became misty. "Augusta is very special, and always has been," he said. "It's a tournament that I looked forward to long before I ever got there, and then to get there and have the experiences that I've had, and to [have had that] opportunity for forty-eight years, is even more special."

Still, you couldn't blame the man for being attached to Augusta. As Palmer says, "That was my life, and my living." The living proved an exceedingly good one, as is evident when one visits him in Latrobe. His fortune is estimated to be a high eight-figure number, maybe as large as $100 million. Palmer was the progenitor of the career that every subsequent professional golfer has aspired.

Golf's everyman has traveled down Magnolia Lane, greeting the game's rite of spring with the same enthusiasm, optimism and competitive spirit that he first brought to Augusta National as an amateur in 1955. Lines, a little deeper and wider these days, bounce upon his broad forehead as he talks of the place. Deeper and wider yet is the army of fans who line the fairways each year to see him. He gives a nod here, an autograph over there, there, and there. A bit shorter too, are the famous heel-planted drives that made him a four-time Masters champion. But Palmer still has the determination that makes him irrepressibly, joyously unbeatable. Even when he didn't win, it was just a matter of time before Arnie would hitch up his pants, clench his jaw and hit that definitive shot.

Howard Sounes. The Wicked Game: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and the Business of Modern Golf . Harper Collins Publications. 2004.


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