Staying the Course
Arnold Palmer has done just that for 83 years because of his dad, who always stood beside him—and in many ways still does.
The old dog barks a greeting from down the hallway and Janet Hulcher confirms what everybody already knows. “Mr. Palmer is here,” announces the golf legend’s executive assistant, sitting at her desk. Mulligan, a lumbering yellow Labrador whose age nobody seems to know anymore, appears first, the metronome of his tail wagging slowly. Mulligan’s master, Arnold Palmer, is moving even slower, his body contorted with pain, his gait forced. “I’m not having a good morning,” he states as he shuffles gingerly to his office on the second floor above the pro shop at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. He had played golf the day before on the course he owns, and his creaky body is what’s barking at him.
Palmer is 83, and in golf parlance he has played life’s 18 holes and has had the good fortune to be able to go back onto the course for perhaps another nine. Twenty-seven holes would be nice. It would also provide a sense of symmetry, for it was 27 holes that his father got—not in figurative years, but literally. On a picture-postcard Florida afternoon on February 6, 1976, Milfred Jerome “Deacon” Palmer, 71, played 27 holes of golf at Bay Hill, returned to his room at the lodge, had a massive heart attack and died.
All these years later, Arnold Palmer’s eyes moisten and his voice chokes several times during an hourlong conversation about his father. It takes only seconds until his first failed attempt to fight back tears. I ask about the story of when Arnold was only 3, his father, or Pap as he called him, put his son’s hands into his and then placed them around the shaft of a cut-down women’s golf club in the classic Vardon grip.
“Now boy, don’t you ever change that,” the elder Palmer ordered his son. “Just keep it that way the rest of your life.”
It is a life that saw Arnold Palmer win 62 PGA Tour titles, seven major championships and bring the sport to the masses, becoming its most beloved figure, with his legion of fans known as Arnie’s Army. It is a life that saw him pioneer the athlete as a product endorser, doing so innovatively and lucratively, becoming the highest-grossing athlete in endorsement income from 1961 to 1991, when Michael Jordan supplanted him.
It is a life that has extended beyond his father’s by a dozen years. But even now, into his ninth decade and metaphorically playing another nine holes, Palmer’s memory of his father teaching him the Vardon grip is still fresh. So are his emotions.
“I would guess,” I say to him, “that just about every time you grip a golf club, you think of your father.”
“Oh…,” Palmer says, then stops. His voice cracks and raises an octave. “I… I think of him all the time. In everything I look at and think about, it reminds me of him.”
There are other lessons—those that pertain to golf and, more importantly, to life. Arnold Palmer wasn’t the perfect son, nor was Deacon Palmer the perfect father. They had their differences. Deacon was a staunch Democrat who revered Franklin Roosevelt, while Arnold became a Republican and a close friend of Dwight Eisenhower. But Deacon and Arnold Palmer, imperfect as they were, were a perfect match: the demanding, disciplined father and the son who wanted nothing more than to win his approval. Tellingly, at the end of his 1999 autobiography, A Golfer’s Life, Palmer ruminates about his father, “wondering what my Pap would make of this golfer’s life. Some things never change. I still hope he’d be pleased.”
Had his father not been so demanding, Palmer doubts he’d have been so successful. To win a golf tournament was one thing, but to win even the slightest commendation from his Pap was quite another, and harder to come by. “The approvals were very limited,” Palmer recalls, “and the compliments were very slow and slim.”
I ask him to think of one special time when he got his father’s approval, and what was it like for him.
Palmer pauses, remembering the U.S. National Amateur Championship he won in 1954, shortly before turning pro. His mother, Doris, was the first to reach him afterward, her pride and tears overflowing. “Where’s Pap?” Arnold asked her. He soon found his father in the crowd, wearing a contented smile. It was the first time he’d seen him smile all week. But that wasn’t all, although that smile would’ve been enough. While posing for photographers, Deacon put his hand
on his son’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “You did pretty good, boy,” he said.
“I was always trying to please him, trying to get his approval,” Palmer says now, smiling at the memory, sitting at his desk. “I don’t think I would’ve driven myself as hard if not for that.”
To this day, nobody knows how Milfred Jerome Palmer got the nickname that stuck—Deacon. “Milfred Jerome wasn’t his thing,” Arnold says. “What are you going to do with a name like that? He wasn’t a Milfred or a Jerome. He was Deacon. That fit.” Deacon, or Deke as he was also called, named his firstborn son Arnold Daniel Palmer after two of his friends.
Deacon Palmer had a lot of friends, from bankers and businessmen to bartenders and bricklayers. Like his son, he liked people. At 15, he quit school and went to work for the company that is now Standard Steel in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Though he had a club foot and walked with a limp due to infantile paralysis, Deacon Palmer was a strong, robust man who could pump one-handed chin-ups with either arm. He loathed working indoors so when he heard about a local golf course being built, he applied and was hired as a laborer. It was 1920, and Deacon Palmer never left Latrobe Country Club, eventually becoming the grounds superintendent and then club pro. Many of the trees he planted with his own hands still dot the golf course today.
It was there that young Arnold learned most of his life lessons, not to mention how to play golf. He often says that everything he knows about golf, he learned from his father. Deacon was his first and only swing coach. Shortly after teaching his boy the Vardon grip he still employs today, the father gave another bit of golf advice that Arnold never abandoned.
“Hit it hard, boy,” Deacon told him. “Hit it hard. Then go find it, and hit it hard again.”
The classic Arnold Palmer swing has never been described as a classic golf swing. In his prime, it was violent in its power, efficient but not effortless. His shots were clothesline low, seemingly launched from a cannon instead of lofted from a tee. That he inherited his father’s strong hands and upper body helped. Because he tried to hit the ball so hard, Palmer created tremendous natural torque from his rotating hips, an instinctive motion that served him well as a pro. But as a boy, sometimes he’d swing so hard his feet would leave the ground.
One time he even toppled over. Seeing that, one of Latrobe’s prominent members, J.R. Larson, told Palmer’s father, “Deacon, you better do something about that kid’s swing. He swings so hard he can’t even stay on his feet.” With piercing eyes Deacon glared at the member and growled, “J.R., you let me worry about the kid and you take care of your own game, all right?!”
It was an exchange that gave young Arnold insight into a caring and fiercely protective side of his father that he didn’t fully appreciate until years later. So did another incident when Arnold was a teenager working in the pro shop. One hot afternoon nobody was around, so the boy locked up and headed onto the course to practice. When Larson came by and couldn’t get to his clubs, he found Deacon, who found Arnold and promptly lit into his son in front of Larson, telling him how unreliable and undependable he was. At one point, Larson chimed in, “Tell you what, Deacon. Send him down to the steel mill to work. We’ll straighten him out fast.”
Once again, Arnold recalls, his father’s reaction was shockingly swift.
“Don’t tell me what to do with my kid!” he snapped. “You take care of your business, Mr. Larson, and I’ll take care of mine!”
For a father who wasn’t much for displaying affection and who was penurious with his compliments, the two J.R. Larson anecdotes are telling.
“Your dad was protective of you,” I say.
“Yeah, but he never let me know it.”
“But in those two instances you did see it,” I say. “He wasn’t going to let anyone mess with you.”
“Well, he didn’t want me to work in the steel mill.”
“But it was more than that,” I say. “He loved you dearly.’’
Palmer’s face flushes.
“Right,” he says, nodding, his eyes watering, his voice a whisper. “That’s true.”
Although Palmer practically grew up on a golf course (the family’s small wood-frame home was just off the 6th fairway), he didn’t enjoy the privileges that being the club pro’s son might bring today. The Palmer kids weren’t allowed on the course or even in the club pool. Instead, they swam in a nearby stream and played in the road in front of their house. Deacon Palmer was fastidious about the golf course, loathing divots or any other blemishes. This meant no practicing your short game around the holes. Not surprisingly, throughout his pro career, Arnold Palmer’s short game was his weak link.
But working at the golf course during summers certainly had its advantages. Young Arnold learned and constantly practiced; and when he caddied, he could play the course on Mondays. He was also always around his Pap, absorbing whatever his father taught him about the game.
There also were other advantages to having a country club essentially in his backyard. Deacon Palmer had not come from privilege; he was the son of a painter. But he observed and learned from the upper-crust club members he befriended and then passed those lessons on to his children.
Manners and etiquette were paramount to Deacon Palmer, and he tutored his children in them, with zero tolerance for any breaches. If Arnold left his hat on in the presence of a woman or when entering a room, Deacon would remind his boy of his shameful transgression by snatching the cap off his head—and if some of his scalp came with it, so be it.
These days at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, hats on men’s heads are not allowed in the dining area. And no matter where he might be dining, Palmer can’t eat with a group of people without escaping from the lessons his father taught him.
“When I was a little boy, and my sister and I were growing up, my Pap taught us how to eat and how to be mannerly and how to hold a knife and fork,” Palmer says. “How many kids today know how to hold a knife and fork properly?” He pauses for several seconds, shakes his head and adds, “Not many. I have meetings with business executives all the time, and I watch famous people eat, and they don’t know how to hold a knife and fork. Many of them are remiss, and they look like they’re going to butcher something.”
He shakes his head again.
“It wasn’t just everything I know about golf that my father taught me. It was simply everything. How to eat, how to drink, how to act, how to sit, how to talk … he gave it all to me.”
He didn’t grow up in fear of his father. Instead, it was a lifelong fear of displeasing him, and it still lingers with Arnold today, 37 years after his Pap’s death. One of his earliest memories is from when he was 5 and was fascinated by building model airplanes. One day at the local drugstore, he took a packet of glue, slid it into his pocket and walked out the door. He got away cleanly, but not with a clean conscience. He began worrying about what his Pap might think of his theft. All these years later, he still thinks about it. “It has haunted me my entire life,” he says.
All in all, his was a happy childhood. Arnold’s mother, Doris, was bubbly and nurturing, and she filled in all the tangible gaps—the expressions of affection—that Deacon withheld. Latrobe had a communal feel, even with all the different strata of income. Among the members of Latrobe Country Club members was the Rogers family, who owned a die-casting business. Their son, Fred, was a year older than Arnold. Years later, Fred created a children’s TV show, modeling much of it after the Latrobe that he and Arnold Palmer grew up in. He called it Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Arnold thought he would never leave Latrobe, and he never really has. He winters in Orlando, where he not only has an office at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge but has also become intricately involved in the community, most notably with the hospitals for women and children that bear his name and that of his late first wife, Winnie. His main home, though, has always been in Latrobe. At 18, Palmer did leave for college, heading to North Carolina’s Wake Forest University to play golf on a full scholarship. At the time, he knew nothing about Wake Forest, much less its athletic nickname—the Demon Deacons—the second word of which was another reminder of his father.
There is another story Palmer relates whose roots perhaps delve into the subconscious. He was maybe 9 when he got into a fight with another boy, whom he soon had on the ground. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder, that of a local man known as Fat Rusnak. “He wanted me to stop, and I told him, ‘Up yours.’” Rusnak wouldn’t turn him loose, so Arnold grabbed a peach from a nearby fruit stand and smeared it all over Rusnak’s shirt. The man disappeared into a nearby bar and emerged several minutes later accompanied by a scowling Deacon.
“It had been raining, and my Pap had an umbrella,” Palmer recalls. “He spanked me with that umbrella all the way home.”
Today, the logo at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge is an umbrella. Coincidence? Palmer thinks about it, before answering, “I don’t think so. Not really.”
But who really knows?
What he does know is that the umbrella spanking is one of only a couple of times his Pap laid a hand on him. The other time was the most dramatic and traumatic event of his childhood.
Deacon Palmer was a drinker, and sometimes an over-drinker. Latrobe produced Rolling Rock beer, but Pap preferred bourbon. When Arnold was an adult and affluent and could afford any kind of alcoholic beverage imaginable, father and son had a teasing routine they’d enjoy. “He used to kid me,” Arnold says.
“I’d say, ‘How about a beer, Pap?’ And he’d say, ‘Why do you drink that belly wash?’ He liked the beer. But he really liked whiskey. He wanted to get to the good stuff.”
Sometimes, though, the good stuff got to Deacon, and it could be bad. One of those times was Arnold’s 16th birthday, when Deacon came home for dinner after having too many drinks and promptly started picking on Arnold’s mother, his words insensitive and mean-spirited. Arnold had seen this play out before, and this time he’d seen enough. He told Pap he didn’t like the way he was talking to his mother. The look he received was one of shock and rage. Deacon grabbed Arnold’s shirt, lifted him off the ground, and threw him against a galvanized stovepipe, flattening it. Later that evening, Arnold gathered some belongings and slipped out of his house, planning to run away. Soon, he found himself in the middle of the night wandering the most peaceful place he knew of on earth—the Latrobe golf course. Before the sun rose, he eased back into the house and into bed. The incident was never mentioned again, nor did Deacon ever again lay a hand on Arnold.
“He was … the whiskey part … he was a drinker,” Palmer says. “He handled that sometimes poorly. He was a guy that … he smoked for a little while. But then somebody said something to him about smoking, and he quit. He never smoked again in his life, and this was in his early 20s. Later, he would come to my house, and I’d be smoking. He hated my smoking. He’d say, ‘Arn, you’ve gotta quit smoking.’ Then he’d say, ‘Give me one of those.’ And he’d smoke a cigarette right there in front of me, and then throw it away and not smoke another.
“He wanted to show me he could quit, that he could smoke a cigarette and throw it away and never have another one. He did it to show me he could smoke if he wanted to, but he just didn’t choose to. He was strong in that department. He had a lot of willpower. And when he drank a little too much once in a while, he’d quit drinking. He wouldn’t drink any at all. Just stop. He knew when he needed to stop, and he would. He took great pride in his willpower—in being able to do things, and also not do them.”
Even when Arnold Palmer became the biggest name in golf, he was still Deacon’s boy, and not above counsel from his old man. When Palmer was busy revolutionizing the image of an athlete as an endorser, making more from that than he did on the PGA Tour, Deacon would tell him the same thing that he heard from a lot of critics during the 1960s—that he should scale back on business ventures and focus more on golf. Palmer, who also became a golf course designer, was what that era called a tycoon. He had a pilot’s license and his own plane and would fly himself to tournaments and business meetings.
“Pap used to tell me, ‘Why don’t you just stick to your golf?’ He was just that kind of guy. We’d talk about golf and my business and how I was doing a lot of traveling, and like a lot of people he thought I should focus more on my game. But there were a lot of aspects of it that he enjoyed, like the airplane; that I’d take him in the airplane to play golf somewhere. And he enjoyed my mother going with us. That was always fun.”
In addition to designing and building golf courses, Palmer decided in 1971 to buy an existing one—Latrobe Country Club. By then, the half-century-old course was showing its age, and Deacon implored his son not to buy it. “Are you crazy?” he asked more than once. But Arnold did buy it, and then promptly renovated the course until it once again became an emerald on western Pennsylvania’s hilly landscape. “Now you have to work for me, Pap,” Arnold teased his father.
The one decision Deacon was immediately on board with was Arnold buying the Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Palmer had liked Orlando the first time he ever visited, when he was a college golfer and Wake Forest played a match against Rollins College (where, coincidentally, Fred Rogers earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951). Palmer, though, really fell in love with Orlando in 1965, when he shot a course-record 66 in an exhibition at Bay Hill to beat his nearest competitor, Jack Nicklaus. Later, he excitedly told his wife Winnie, “Babe, I just played the best golf course in Florida, and I want to own it.”
Back then, similar to now, if people from the North wanted to buy in Florida, they sought somewhere along the coastline, not inland. And certainly not in Orlando, and definitely not Orlando before Walt Disney established any roots. But Palmer saw something he instantly loved. “I saw the lakes, the fresh water, and the environment here was fantastic,” he says. “It was so natural. Everything. The orange groves. I loved the orange groves and the grapefruit, and all the natural farming area here. It was just a natural. And I thought, ‘Gee, what a great place for a private resort-type of club.’ ”
“He loved it. Oh, he loved it. He wasn’t familiar with all my financial arrangements and things that I needed to do to buy Bay Hill (it took him better than five years to finally purchase it). But he loved it.”
After working at Latrobe Country Club for 55 years, Deacon Palmer finally retired in 1975. Early in February of 1976, he and his son’s longtime personal assistant, Doc Giffin, took a winter trip to Bay Hill.
“Deacon was a lovable guy but crusty at the same time,” Giffin says. “Like his son, he liked people. And there was a sensitive side to him, too. I’d just had a very emotional month. One of my closest friends from childhood was killed in a plane crash. When we got ready to go to Bay Hill, Deacon said to me, ‘Doc, I know you lost your good buddy. I’ll try to be your good buddy this week.’ Two days later, Deacon was gone.”
Arnold was playing in California at the Bob Hope Desert Classic, a PGA tournament he won five times. He’d just shot an opening-round 64 and was ebullient. Then his world came crashing down. Back home at Bay Hill, after playing 27 holes of golf, his Pap suffered a heart attack in his lodge room and died. Giffin saw his door ajar, and then found Deacon lying on the floor.
Distraught when he heard the news—“I just lost it,” he says—Palmer flew to Latrobe. He then had his father’s body flown there on his plane. Deacon was cremated, and after a small, private ceremony, his ashes were spread along a knoll just above the 18th green at Latrobe Country Club.
It’s the same spot where Arnold Palmer wants his own ashes spread one day.
Palmer thought that day might have arrived last year, with perhaps the end also coming for him at Bay Hill, just like his Pap.
Since 1979, Bay Hill has hosted the PGA Tour stop now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and every year Palmer is there on the final-round Sunday, waiting for the winner at the 18th green for the awards ceremony. But he wasn’t there last year. His blood pressure had skyrocketed, so much so that he visited the medical tent on the tournament grounds. The doctor there wanted him hospitalized. Since Palmer’s personal physician, Dr. Fernando Hernandez, lives at Bay Hill, he went to his house for a second opinion. Unable to get Palmer’s blood pressure under control, Dr. Hernandez drove him to the hospital and admitted him.
As the events of that day unfolded, it provided Palmer with a sense of symmetry. Just as his father resides in his earliest sentient memories, teaching him the Vardon grip, they surfaced there again for an octogenarian Arnold Palmer during those disconcerting medical moments.
“I did connect the whole thing to my father, and how he died at Bay Hill,” Palmer says, his voice softening as he slowly nods. “I definitely was thinking about that, about my Pap. Seems like I’m always thinking about him.”
In the Name of Healing
Through his contributions to two hospitals, Arnold Palmer has given children a fighting chance.
It looks like an amusement park, with Disney characters and children’s play areas, bright colors and cheery architecture. But inside, children aren’t fighting for a seat on the next ride. They are fighting for their health, and all too often for their life.
Arnold Palmer stands in the lobby and looks around, absorbed by his surroundings. He also becomes absorbed in his thoughts, his mind rewinding to a time when the building that bears his name didn’t exist, and children in dire medical need were cramped in a tiny area at Orlando Regional Medical Center. In the early 1980s, Palmer was asked to help raise funds for the children housed in the hospital, and he toured it to see why there was a need.
Palmer says cleanliness was a major issue. And that didn’t just sadden him. It moved him.
“I thought I could have a part in bringing a hospital to Orlando that would smell nice, that would be clean and that would give people, especially children, a different perspective so they wouldn’t be afraid,’’ he says. Today, that hospital is the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, which opened in 1989. Across the street is the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, which opened in 2006 and is named after Palmer’s late wife.
Lest anyone think that all Palmer has done is lend his name and checkbook to the cause, Dr. Gregor Alexander has a much different take. A neonatologist, Alexander was with Arnold and Winnie Palmer when they first toured Orlando Regional Medical Center, and he’s been a key figure at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. “I remember him saying, ‘We can do better, and we will do better.’ He has been the inspiration and driving force for all of us to continue to do our labor of love.”
And it is a labor of love—and compassion. Every child admitted to the Arnold Palmer Hospital receives a Bill of Rights stating that they can expect:
• Time to play each day.
• People to knock on my door before coming in my room.
• Doctors and nurses to tell me their names.
• People to understand that sometimes I need to cry when I’m afraid or hurt.
• My parents to help take care of me.
• People to laugh with me.
• Safe, quiet times during each day.
• People to tell me what’s going on and why.
• My room and my bed to be safe places.
• People to let me choose what I want when it’s OK.
• My favorite toy from home to be with me and to go along to surgery and different places in the hospital.
• A hug when I need one.
Of all Palmer’s accomplishments—his 62 PGA Tour wins and seven major tournament victories, and various successful business ventures, like his ownership of the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which houses a PGA Tour stop that bears his name—it is these two hospitals that he thinks of most.
“Every day,” he says. “If I don’t think about it, I’m reminded of it when I’m listening to the news or reading the newspaper.”
It’s comforting, humbling even, when he hears that someone in need of medical help was “taken to Arnold Palmer,” the implication being that they are in good hands now—in Arnold Palmer’s hands. As he talks about how special those words are every time he hears them, a woman passes by in the hospital lobby, recognizes Palmer, and says, “You do such nice work here. Thank you, and God bless you.”
Not only is the hospital doing nice work, but great work. U.S. News & World Report just named Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children one of the nation’s Best Children’s Hospitals, an honor it has achieved four times in the past five years.
Michael Thomas doesn’t need to be convinced. The 18-year-old Merritt Island resident has spent most of his teenage years in and out of Arnold Palmer Hospital, battling hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH, a rare and potentially fatal disease. He also suffers from twisted intestines and pancreatitis.
“I can get sick really easy,” Thomas says from his hospital bed, moments after meeting Arnold Palmer. “The last time I was here I was supposed to die. I don’t want to be gross, but I puked up a pint of blood, my lung collapsed, I had multiple infections, and I went through two rounds of chemo. I’ve been coming here a lot the last five years. They’ve saved my life. If Arnold Palmer had not made a hospital for children, a lot of kids like me wouldn’t be here today.”