obits: All Arnie Palmer did, was “save golf”


This April 16, 1960, file photo shows Arnold Palmer surrounded by applauding citizens of his native Latrobe, Pa.

This April 16, 1960, file photo shows Arnold Palmer surrounded by applauding citizens of his native Latrobe, Pa. Photo: Associated Press

Arnold Palmer was never allowed to order an “Arnold Palmer.”  That was the rule at his country club in Latrobe, Pa., where Mr. Palmer and I grew up, 60 years apart. The summer before I left for college, I started working at the snack shack beside the club pool. There were a few rules to the summer job—test the internal temperature of the hot dogs before serving, for instance—but one that I learned early in my three-month tenure was this: Mr. Palmer should never have to order the drink named after him.

Instead, if he showed up, with his wife, Kit, or his cadre of friends after a round on the course, he was supposed to have the half-lemonade, half-iced-tea drink served, no questions asked. You weren’t going to make Arnold Palmer say, “I’ll have an Arnold Palmer.”

This typified Mr. Palmer, who died Sunday at the age of 87, for most Latrobeans: respectability and humility, assumed through a distance that made him seem mythic despite everyday reminders of his presence. The Latrobe high school was located off Arnold Palmer Drive, but his house was hidden behind hedges down the street on Legends Lane.

Latrobe, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents about an hour east of Pittsburgh, had a celebrity grandfather in Mr. Palmer. He was a town philanthropist and businessman, his name decorated across town: on the local airport, the nature reserve established for his late wife, the Buick dealership next to the Burger King. “I got it down at Arnie Palmer’s,” people say about their new rides.

A former steel town, Latrobe and the communities surrounding it have a turn in the spotlight every four years, when political reporters examine its working-class demographics for any sign of economic anxiety, proof of a conservative lifestyle outside the state’s two biggest cities. Latrobe is not a fancy town, despite our most famous resident being a millionaire who earned his status and class in a rarified sport.

Photos: Arnold Palmer’s Legacy on the Green
The golf legend helped popularize the sport as a television event for the masses

In Latrobe, Mr. Palmer’s working-class beginnings—he was born the son of the greenskeeper at the country club he would one day own—are as well-known as the endorsement deals and fame that followed. “He was no doubt the most uncommon common man who ever lived,” said the obituary in Monday’s Latrobe Bulletin.

By the time he’d retired as the “King” of golf, a player credited with bringing the sport to the masses, he was also a celebrity in a small town willing to gossip about or bug him like any other neighbor. Waitresses who served him at the local Sharky’s bar compared tips he’d given them, and some lucky young golfers wore white polos graffitied with Mr. Palmer’s autograph in black Sharpie pen.

He was also the last surviving member of a Latrobe trinity learned from elementary school: Arnold Palmer, Mr. Rogers and Rolling Rock beer. “Two of whom went to high school with your grandmother,” my mom recently said.

Mr. Rogers died in 2003, though his name is still on the community pool. Rolling Rock was sold off in 2006 to Anheuser-Busch, which moved the brewing operations out of downtown Latrobe to New Jersey. The Latrobe Bulletin published an “obituary” for the beer when the sale closed. It’s still hard to find a Latrobe bar that dares to serve it. It’s much easier to get an Arnold Palmer, whether you’re the man or not.

Mr. Palmer came of age just as television was becoming a household item and he was largely responsible for making the game a spectator sport for the masses. Palmer’s go-for-broke playing style and everyman demeanor broadened the game’s appeal beyond the country-club crowd that had long been its primary audience.

“All Arnold Daniel Palmer did was save golf,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1994. Millions of followers in “Arnie’s Army” watched Palmer’s every move as he hitched up his trousers, cocked his head, and then swung as hard as he could at the golf ball that sometimes went where he wanted … and sometimes not.

In his 1997 autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life,” Mr. Palmer said his father told him: “Get the right grip. Hit the ball hard. Go find the ball, boy, and hit it hard again.”

—Mr. Schwartzel covers the film industry for The Wall Street Journal.