News & Opinion

Springtime in Latrobe: A ‘void’ after the ‘King’

LATROBE, Pa. – Matt Pellis has been the PGA professional at Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania for 15 years, but this spring is different. It’s the first golf season at Latrobe, boyhood home of Arnold Palmer, since the death of the “King.”

“There is definitely a different feeling this spring,” Pellis said. “Reality is starting to set in because this is the time of year that Mr. Palmer would usually arrive from Orlando to spend his summer here in Latrobe. There’s a void, for sure.”

My first trip to Latrobe was in October, when I attended the memorial service for Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87. I made a quick visit to Latrobe Country Club and vowed to return this spring when I could play the course built by Deacon Palmer, Arnold’s dad, and experience the full flavor of a place that helped shape American golf history.

Built in 1920 as a nine-holer, the course was expanded to 18 holes in the early 1960s. In 1971, Arnold Palmer Enterprises purchased the course, where Palmer’s father served as golf course superintendent and golf professional from 1926 until his death in 1976.

Doc Giffin, Palmer’s longtime assistant, remembers a conversation between father and son when it was apparent that the younger Palmer would be buying the club. “Deke told him that he was crazy to buy the place,” Giffin said. “Arnold said, ‘I’m doing it because it’s sentimental to us, and I want to be your boss.’ ”

At 6,517 yards, the course is short, tight and hilly. It still shows many of Deacon Palmer’s fingerprints and features a carved statute of the elder Palmer on the left side of the 18th hole. The clubhouse displays a distinct 1970s feel, and it oozes the Palmer presence. Framed photos and trophies tell the story of the Palmer family and legacy. These days, visitors can’t help but feel a sad pall upon entering. Latrobe’s King is gone, although his presence remains. Nonetheless, the aura will never be the same.

Jim DeAugustine, the locker-room attendant, has worked at the club for 15 years and fondly recalled Palmer.

“It was sad to see his decline last year,” DeAugustine said. “But, he always managed a smile and made everyone around him feel better about themselves. He took a genuine interest in everybody above himself.”

Emily Walker, a college student who works in the club’s halfway house, shared her favorite Arnold Palmer memory.

“My grandfather grew up here and he actually caddied for Arnold Palmer before he was Arnold Palmer,” Walker said. “Mr. Palmer was just a teenager then. I always thought that was really cool.”

A Latrobe member speaking on anonymity said, “We miss Arnold. He was a friend to everyone. He made you always feel like he really cared about what was going on in your life. This place just won’t be the same without him.”

Jon Beck, an assistant pro, said, “Last summer even though he couldn’t hit balls, he would drive his cart over to his personal tee on the range and just sit there. Sometimes he fell asleep and Doc would send us down to make sure he was OK. Mr. Palmer would wake up with a smile and ask what we were doing there.”

So, what is the future of the Latrobe Country Club? According to Giffin who worked for Palmer for 53 years, the family is sorting things out. That includes the massive barn that houses decades of memorabilia from a career in which Palmer won 62 times on Tour, including seven major championships, to rank fifth on the all-time victory list. The mementoes are being catalogued for estate purposes.

Although the Latrobe office is closed, Giffin still makes two or three trips a week to keep a tab on things.

“It’s different not to have him show up at the office every morning at 8 a.m.,” Giffin said. “Like everyone else here, I am adjusting to life after Arnold.”

One of my playing partners was ESPN’s Mike Greenberg, who said Latrobe “is like a museum of golf history.”

“For the golfer, it is every bit as fascinating as it might be for a musician to see where Mozart learned to play the piano. There have been very few legends quite like Arnold Palmer in the history of any sport. To be able to see where it began and follow his remarkable story from start to finish is an unforgettable experience.” 

A “reserved” sign sits on the table in the men’s grill room where Palmer ate lunch. We joined Giffin for dinner Saturday night. He pointed to Palmer’s favorite chair and said, “We will leave that chair vacant. He always wanted to be right by the door to the locker room so he could greet everybody that came in. We always had to scoot the table over because people were opening the door into his chair,” Giffin said with a chuckle.

Although the chair was vacant during dinner, it was filled with the spirit of the greatest man to play the game. Hopefully, the Palmer family will continue to preserve the important history of Latrobe Country Club, which merits a spot in the National Register of Historic Places.     

Ted Bishop, who owns and operates The Legends Golf Club in Franklin, Ind., and is the author of “Unfriended,” was president of the PGA of America in 2013-14. Email: tedbishop38pga@aol.com; Twitter: @tedbishop38pga