Memories of a larger-than-life figure

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Editor's note: Rex Hoggard visited Arnold Palmer in Latrobe, Pa., in September 2015.

ATLANTA – Of the thousands of trophies, photographs and keepsakes that cover the walls of Arnold Palmer’s office in Latrobe, Pa., it was a cryptic letter tucked into a corner that stood out.

Donald “Doc” Giffin, Palmer’s spokesman, confidant and friend of nearly 50 years, gazes at the missive from behind coke-bottle glasses. “This is really something,” he says.

Dear Arnie:

Enclosed is payment for my bet – and never was there one more reluctantly paid.

Over the course of a career that included seven major championship victories, 62 PGA Tour titles and enough winks and knowing smiles to delight an army, there must have been more bets paid to the King than even the IRS could track.

Why would this particular wager, which includes a dog-eared and sun-faded $10, rate a spot on the wall in Arnie’s office?

A wedge shot from the first green at Latrobe Country Club, where his father, Deke, taught him the game, Arnie’s office is exactly what one would expect from a man who single-handedly lifted the game from niche curiosity to a sport of genuine appeal.



There are photos of his signature victories at the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open, and models of the private jets that became as much a part of his appeal as that slashing swing and knowing smile.

Also attached is a picture cut from the Philadelphia Inquirer. It indicates dejection; please remember that a couple of accidents will not be important a year from now. You’ll win a lot more tournaments and forget all the woe caused by bridges, rocks and complaints about a tree.

And of course there is Arnie’s famous workshop, stacked full with every imaginable golf club, putter and gadget. Boxes of leather straps sit in a corner. He likes a certain kind of grip on his clubs ... every club, so along with an assortment of loft and lie machines, a Stimpmeter and other items of golf nerd interest is a machine to re-grip golf clubs. So many golf clubs.

There’s a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey in another corner complete with Palmer’s name, a Steelers helmet and a U.S. Ryder Cup bag - he went 2-0 as a captain.

The room is a testament to a life well lived and the man who lived it. Disheveled, like Palmer as he stalked up Augusta National’s 18th hole in 1958 to claim his first green jacket, and gritty, like that ’60 U.S. Open triumph at Cherry Hills when he held off some young gun named Jack Nicklaus.

Woe? What woe, Arnie’s life is a golden era movie and he’s a larger-than-life leading man.

He paved the way for every generation that followed, transcending golf, transcending sport. He made golf cool.

Love to Winnie and keep hitting them!

All the best. As ever,

D.D.E.

The letter, dated Aug. 14, 1965, has no return address, no further explanation.

Giffin’s smile widens. There’s a story to tell and he loves telling stories.

The bet, Giffin explains, was that Arnie would win the 1965 PGA Championship, the lone leg of the career Grand Slam that eluded the King in his career.

The ’65 PGA was moved to Laurel Valley, which is a short drive from Latrobe, and after coming close so many times at his missing major, this one was Arnie’s.

A home game in his prime.

So Arnie took the bet, his friend adamant this would be his time. Crazy, right? Arnie betting against himself, but there it is, on the wall with the cash to prove it.

The week started poorly for Arnie at that PGA with a first-round 72 and things only got worse. He hit a 60-foot fir tree that had been planted adjacent to the third hole after the practice rounds to keep players from trying to cut a corner.

There was a penalty shot when one of Arnie’s tee shots caromed off a bridge, and the hometown hero would finish tied for 33rd, a PGA bridesmaid again.

Next to the letter is a Sports Illustrated cover from September 1969. The headline reads “Farewell to an Era: Arnold Palmer turns 40.” Its place on the wall seems ironic, like the letter, considering Arnie would go on to win eight more PGA Tour titles after it was published.

Giffin reminds Arnie of those eight victories.

“I started late, you have to think about that. I was 25 when I really started playing professional golf, so I was fortunate that I was still able to win and be a participant in the game,” he says. “I still play to win, but I’m too old now.”

Not winning the PGA, even the PGA at Laurel Valley, seems silly now after so many years, so many accomplishments. Arnie has hospitals named after him, a Tour event that still draws the game’s best players, an army that still marches for him. A legacy that will never be duplicated.

Fast-forward a year, to the Tour Championship and Rory McIlroy is asked what Arnie means to him. His eyes begin to glaze over and he pauses, the burden of emotion more than an attempt to collect his thoughts causing the delay.

“Arnie put the game on the map. I don’t think any other sports person in any other sport did for their profession what Arnie did for the game,” says McIlory, who pulled off an Arnie-esque victory on Sunday at East Lake. “He left a legacy that I’m not sure anyone else in sport has left.”

So, who was D.D.E.? Giffin lets the question linger for a few moments. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president and a lifelong friend of Arnie’s.

Arnie died on Sunday. He was 87.

His appeal was universal, his triumphs, his humility, his passion contagious. You always rooted for Arnie whether you were a president, a FedEx Cup champion or a golf writer, because he was the best part of the game.