By Ann Liguori
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This past June 19, I had the pleasure of visiting Arnold Palmer in his office in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the town he grew up in and learned the game from his father.
I had heard that Arnie wasn’t traveling any more, so I wanted to thank him, in person, yet again, for all he had done for golf, sports and charity and for being so important to golf, so genuine, charismatic and truly caring to all.
Doc Giffen, Arnold’s long-time assistant, who’s in his mid-80s, arranged for me to visit. He suggested I arrive at 1:30 p.m. at the Golf House in Latrobe, where Arnie’s office is and a place that contains a fascinating plethora of his awards, pictures, clubs, model planes, memorabilia and hundreds of other keepsakes.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, not 24 hours after I had the opportunity to play Oakmont, site of the U.S. Open. I arrived early and drove into Latrobe Country Club to see the club for the first time and visit the course where Arnie learned the game from his father and where he worked as a young man before heading to Wake Forest University.
Upon my arrival at the club’s entrance, a golf cart was parked just outside with a bag with Arnold’s name on it. Surely, he was there. And, yes, Arnie was in the grill room having lunch. I peeked my head in to say hello and then took a look around.
Lining the hallways and staircase were trophies, awards, photographs and golf memorabilia from Arnie’s storied career. If ever there’s a place that reflects Arnold’s personality — classic yet hospitable — it’s the clubhouse at Latrobe Country Club. What a thrill it was having known “The King” since the mid-1980s to finally be at the course where he grew up and learned the game.
I then drove across the street and up the hill to the Golf House. Giffen greeted me there and before leading me in to Arnold’s office, showed me some of the memorabilia. There was Norman Rockwell’s portrait of Arnie; a huge silver replica of The Masters trophy, a championship Arnold won four times; President Eisenhower’s golf clubs from Eldorado Country Club in Palm Desert, California; photographs of Arnie with a multitude of presidents, including Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and his son, George G. Bush. Then there was the image of Arnie with Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family.
Doc then took me into an office where replicas of the airplanes that Arnold flew adorned the walls and tables. Palmer piloted airplanes for 55 years, flying himself and others to his tournaments while clocking 20,000 hours in the cockpit. In 1976, Arnold took off from Denver in a Learjet 36 and, heading east, circumnavigated the globe in 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds, stopping in Boston, Paris, Tehran, Sri Lanka, Jakarta, Manila, Wake Island and Honolulu. It’s a round-the-world speed record that still stands.
We then went into the club room where Arnold spent hours tinkering with clubs. Doc told me the room contained 2,000 putters, along with all kinds of wedges, irons and woods. Pictures of Arnold with the caddies he had while winning his seven majors (four Masters, two British Opens, one U.S. Open) hang on the walls in the fascinating room.
And then we went into Arnold’s office. There was The King behind his big desk with his warm and welcoming smile, the most charismatic smile in all of sports for decades. Doc went up to him to announce my visit and, as I moved closer, Arnold stood up to welcome me. He was frail and I extended my arm out to help him stand. I had seen him at The Masters, briefly, this year. He normally held court at a table near the big oak tree by the clubhouse, where I’d make sure to say hello to him every year there. But this year was different. He didn’t stay long.
Arnold was a big part of The Golf Channel as one of its founders. And as a host and producer of one of the original shows on TGC, “Conversations with Ann Liguori,” which aired weekly for six years, it was exciting times to be a part of the channel from the beginning, attend the premiere parties and, most of all, share the excitement with Palmer and others in those early years.
In fact, my earliest memories of interviewing Arnold Palmer date back to the mid-1980s. He’d come to Manhattan for various products he was endorsing and there would often be a press function tied to it. I remember interviewing Mark McCormack, the founder of IMG, who with a hand shake, represented Palmer, his first client. They basically created golf on television as we know it.
When I wrote my book, “A Passion for Golf, Celebrity Musings About the Game,” I asked Doc if Arnold would send me a quote I could use on the back cover of the book. Not only did he send it, I had a lovely quote within the week.
Arnold was that way — giving, generous, thoughtful. He never took his success and good fortune for granted. He appreciated it always. In fact, that was one of the subjects we spoke about this past June as I made sure to thank him for being him and for being there for so many people for decades. He was so humbled and thankful for his success and the way his life had turned out.
Arnold was so pleasant. He gave me 15 minutes of his time and conversed with me in his office, signing a few books and posing for photos. After I thanked him and said goodbye, he signed other pieces that were placed near his desk. Doc told me then that Arnold was still spending three hours a day signing things for people.
His greatness extends so far beyond the fairways.
I’ve interviewed and covered thousands of sports stars through the years and no one was ever like Palmer. He’ll never be replaced. His greatness, mostly his dedication and ability to make everyone feel special, will never be forgotten.
This past year we lost three of the greatest icons in sports — Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali and now Palmer — irreplaceable greats who changed the face of their sport and transcended their game. Three legends who inspired generations.
And how thankful I am that I spent time with and knew all three.
I’ll cherish my visit with Arnold Palmer in Latrobe forever.
Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori