Standing in the middle of a barn packed high with ... stuff, I wondered how in the world you fit a lifetime of memories in what amounted to a large three-car garage. And why. Why did Arnold Palmer keep 50 years of memories, trinkets, letters, and golf clubs, strewn about in basements of houses he owned before he collected them all together and had them organized in what is essentially a small barn?
Maybe that was part of his charm — if you sent him something, he kept it, and the proof is in boxes stacked high above racks of memorabilia, containing every piece of fan mail he’s ever received and a copy of everything he’s sent back. He built a loyal following, Arnie’s Army, and he cared after it like a family. You were sending something to a person, and he’d take the time to acknowledge that.
And I guess that’s how a dog clock ended up in the warehouse. The confused, quizzical look on my face was quickly met with affirmation that, yes, it’s a dog clock. It didn’t work either, because dogs have noses, and noses get in the way of clock hands.
He bought Latrobe Country Club, the course he grew up helping his dad maintain. He bought up houses, surrounding himself with friends from high school and family. When his wife liked a barn nestled between some trees adjacent to the course, he bought that too, and restored it.
But I don’t think Mr. Palmer’s collections had any great meaning or were part of The Brand — The King, the tastemaker for a generation and beyond. He surrounded himself with happy things, with memorabilia, equipment, and trinkets from a hell of a life. They just happened to influence him, and if you spend enough time in there you can trace through his life and career in a story told without words.
* * *
Last September, a group of four of us were standing on the first tee box at Latrobe Country Club when Golf Channel host Charlie Rymer wandered over from the clubhouse to strike up conversation. Rymer was serving as a host at the Latrobe Classic, a charity event for neonatal care at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. He had just been chatting with Mr. Palmer, he said, and it was clear something had sparked his interest.
Like a waterfall, a trove of information about grips spilled out of Rymer’s mouth. Ah, I thought, they were talking about tinkering, and it seemed to leave Rymer excited. Rymer could tell the difference between three layers of tape and two, he said, and each grip needed to be prepared and attached in very specific ways. If any of them were just a little bit off, the whole operation was in jeopardy. Golfers are a weird bunch, and Mr. Palmer could spark the imagination of the nerdy just as well as he could make small talk with world leaders or some regular person who happened to run into him.
Arnold Palmer was a master tinkerer, something that’s readily apparent while gazing around the barn and the workshop in his office. There you’ll find stacks of clubs, some still in buckets, others neatly organized, and still others strewn about on a wall. There’s tools and grips and adhesives, and just about anything you’d need to mess with a club. Nobody dares touch that workshop, despite the tangled mess of metal, tape, and tools strewn about.
The 12,000 or so clubs in The Barn are neatly arranged in a single aisle, all carefully organized and cataloged by a college kid over a few summers some decades ago. That college kid was our guide around the warehouse this September, and is a VP at the company and one of Mr. Palmer’s closest assistants. In a room adjacent to his Mr. Palmer’s office, the clubs sat strewn about all over the place, and you can still see the remnants of that habit in the workshop, where the buckets still exist, even as an entire wall serves as a club holder.
He collected everything and fiddled with it, and would be happy to tell you about what he learned while doing so.
* * *
Arnold Palmer wasn’t the best ever on the course, or even in his generation, though that shouldn’t sell his ability or accolades short. Jack Nicklaus takes the greatest-ever honor, and professionals are still chasing his records -- and may be forever.
Off the course, though, Palmer was a force. His charismatic personality and dad-chic exterior were cool. Or, at least I think they were: Palmer in his prime was well before my time, but ... look at this man:
[stares in awe at the off-the-charts mid-century dad swag levels here] pic.twitter.com/R30cgj3J8P— SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) September 26, 2016
Jack became more of a golf tastemaker, pouring his time into designing courses and making a fortune along the way. Palmer, on the other hand, built a brand as a life tastemaker. He licensed his name and racked up endorsements, eventually expanding globally. It’s all built on the name, the personality, the brand of The King. If he thought something was cool or good, well, it probably was cool and good to the generation he grew up with.
His most famous invention, though, and the one that’s made millions is the result of tinkering. It’s simple, and not particularly revolutionary: One part lemonade and one part iced tea makes an Arnold Palmer. It’s something he liked, and something he made millions of Americans like with him.
* * *
His office is a small, unassuming home set back at the end of a cul-de-sac. As we drove up, its only remarkable feature was the painting of an umbrella above the front door. Inside the office, though, are more collections. This is where the important pieces live: Trophies from majors, historic photos, and, of course, where the work gets done.
There’s an entire case of keys to cities, packed to the brim. The entryway and converted living room reveal major trophies and pieces of history, tucked amongst stacks and cases of memories. Stand between the two sections of the room and you can see both an engraved piece of wood from the Eisenhower tree and clubs belonging to Dwight Eisenhower. The two are connected forever, even if the tree was undefeated against the president.
And there are the people: Longtime assistants and friends, including Doc Giffin, who will come greet you with a smile and a hello while you’re there. They’ve all been around and are responsible for some part of the day-to-day operation, but also seem to serve a dual role as friends and confidants.
In the back of the house, behind a set of large wooden doors, sits his office. As we were about to leave, the doors opened and we were ushered in. "Take off the hats or he’ll give you shit," was our brief warning before we shuffled sheepishly towards the door where a friendly, recognizable man in a green sweater bellowed at us to come on in, expecting us to make ourselves comfortable.
This is where the charisma part marries with the tinkerer. As we stood in awe of the situation we found ourselves in, he dutifully pointed out photos and memories hung on the walls, taking his time to make sure we saw the important moments and understood. It was a warm and flowing conversation that put everyone at ease, and had nothing to do with anything important.
He pointed out more of those collections, including books strewn about everywhere in bookcases and on shelves. He had started collecting them, he said, until it got out of hand and became difficult. There was somewhere to be, and an event to appear at, but he didn’t seem to care — in the 15 or so minutes we spent in the office, he made it feel like we were the most important people in the world. It was like he was trying to impress us, not the other way around.
And almost sheepishly, he noted the piles of golf memorabilia piled and scattered about. He had some work to do, and a bunch of things to sign. It was two days after his 87th birthday and he was still making sure the autographs got done.
He asked if we had any questions, the four of us staring blankly while put on the spot. And again, gentle ribbing: Mr. Palmer telling us we had him right there so we should make the most of it. The only thing anyone could stammer out was a request to shake his hand.
"Of course," he said, shaking hands and smiling a wide-eyed grin as he thanked us for dropping by his place.