When he steps off the stairs of his condo at Bay Hill early in the morning, his 9-year-old yellow lab, Mulligan, at his feet, you can almost swear the clouds stop rolling to hold their position and birds cease their chirping.
Palmer’s still a commanding presence.
He’s still a phenom in the sense that at 81 his appeal hasn’t faded.
We saw it in the excitement he generated at the Administaff Small Business Classic’s pro-am last month in one of his rare tournament appearances these days.
We saw it in this year’s release of the Sports Q Scores, where Palmer was the highest-ranked golfer with a 39 rating, putting him ahead of Jack Nicklaus (36), Tiger Woods (30) and Phil Mickelson (24) on Marketing Evaluations’ annual “likability” rankings.
We’ll also get to see it in Golf Channel’s “12 Nights at the Academy,” a special instructional series that begins Nov. 29. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Greg Norman are in the formidable lineup that features Palmer in the anchor spot in the series finale on Dec. 10.
On a spectacular winter Florida morning last week, Palmer recorded his appearance from his condo’s two-car garage, which is so much more than a garage. It’s also his work shop, a miniature version of the special warehouse he built at his Latrobe, Pa., home. There are at least 50 golf shoes stored here in Orlando, dozens of golf clubs in racks above his work bench and lined up against the walls.
“This is just a smattering,” Palmer says during a break in the TV shoot. “It’s all in Latrobe. The place there’s huge.”
Palmer estimates he has 10,000 clubs stored in Latrobe, though not all his treasures are there. The driver he used to famously reach the first green in the final round at Cherry Hills when he made his triumphant charge to win the U.S. Open 50 years ago is on display at the club there. Some of his treasures are on loan to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla.
“That’s coming back this year,” Palmer says. “It will go to Latrobe.
“I’m thinking of maybe taking a barn I have up there and turning it into a museum.”
For 12 consecutive nights the game’s biggest names will each host their own instructional show, sharing stories and experiences from their careers. 12 Nights at the Academy premieres on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. ET, with a new episode airing each night through Dec. 10.Palmer’s equipment is special to him, so special that most of those 10,000 clubs in Latrobe are catalogued on a computer filing system.
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His garage in Orlando is more than his workshop. It’s a retreat. He’ll hop onto his golf cart most every morning with Mulligan in tow, drive up to his office at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge and read his mail, write letters and tend to his business interests. He ventures back to his garage to escape.
“You see Arnold in here all the time, tinkering,” says a neighbor who stops by briefly before the TV shoot.
Palmer’s an equipment junkie. He loves trying out new clubs. On this morning, he’s fascinated by the Lamborghini forged composite shaft on a new Callaway driver.
“I won the Shell Houston Open one year with three sets of irons,” he tells Golf Channel’. Kelly Tilghman during taping of “12 Nights at the Academy.”
Palmer also loves to work on his own equipment, and he’s got special tools for the job in his Orlando garage. Above the work bench is a street sign that reads: “Arnie’s Drive.” There’s a machine on the bench to grind his irons and a sander. There’s an anchored vice grip to hold the clubs in place.
You’ll get a peek inside Palmer’s garage during “12 Nights at the Academy.” Tilghman’s interview takes place in the garage, where Palmer will show you how he changes the grips on his clubs. He does more than that. He shows Tilghman exactly how his father, Deke, taught him to put his famous hands onto a club as the grip he learned to play with.
Palmer shares a lot of insight with Tilghman, including his thoughts on how important it is for a player to create a style. He’ll tell you it’s among the lessons he passed onto his grandson, Sam Saunders, who is making his way into professional golf. Palmer told Tilghman finding a style is so important to a player’s purpose and confidence that it ought to seep into the way he walks.
While Palmer still enjoys going to his office to write letters to fans and do business, you know it’s here, in his workshop and garage, that he does his best thinking, that he finds much of the wisdom that shows up in those letters and in his business.
There’s something important to Palmer here you can’t see, but you can feel it. There’s solace.
“When I need to be alone and do my thing, this is where I go,” Palmer says. “It’s nice to get down here. It’s very quiet. Nobody knows where I am, unless I tell them. I get away from everything, and I can do what I want in there. Same thing up in Latrobe. I just close the doors.”
But during “12 Nights at the Academy,” he’ll open those doors for you. He’ll welcome you inside.