The Golf Buddy: Arnold Palmer with Tom Ridge, 64, former Pa. governor
Marc Serota/Getty Images
By Connell Barrett
Monday, August 03, 2009

The officers in his Army — his grandson, his pilot, even his dentist — reveal the Arnie you don't know

It's the most-asked question of any celebrity: What's he really like? The ranking officers in Arnie's Army agree on one point: Arnie loves being Arnie. "He thrives on interacting with people," says pilot Pete Luster, 66, who shares the cockpit with Palmer in Arnie's Cessna Citation X. "Sometimes we'll be in a country — maybe he's out buying toothpaste — and people don't recognize him. I've seen him get annoyed. He'll wait around until someone says, 'You're Arnold Palmer!' 'Why yes, I am.' [Laughs] Some people get the name wrong. My favorite is when they say, 'You're Jack Nicklaus!' Oh, he loves that."

Palmer's grandson Sam Saunders — a senior on Clemson's golf team — describes a tough-as-titanium mentor. "I was four when he first put my hands on a club, the same way his dad showed him," says Saunders, 21. "He said sternly, 'This is perfect — don't change anything.' When I was 13, I was trying a tip I'd gotten on the range. He said, 'You don't listen to a word I say! Listen to other people, or listen to me!' He was saying, 'I know best — listen to me.' I did."

According to Marty Newingham, 51, a longtime playing partner at Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania, it would be hard to find a bigger gear junkie than Palmer. "He never plays a round with less than 30 clubs, in two bags on the back of his cart." Like a mad scientist, Arnie ceaselessly tinkers with lofts and lie angles mid-round, Newingham says. "He'll fix his grip so that it's thicker on his right hand and thinner on his left, so that he gets more wrist action. It's a science."

Palmer turns 80 in September, but he can still play, says friend and fellow Latrobe member Jim Bryan, 50. "One day, he started his round [with scores of] 2, 2, 3, 2, 3. He's 6-under through five! My buddy said, 'My God, he's gonna shoot zero.' "

First-round jitters come with F.O.A. (Friend Of Arnie) territory. Back in the '70s, his then dentist Howdy Giles was so anxious the night before their inaugural round that he slept in his golf clothes. "But he put me completely at ease," says Giles, 67. Did he ever. Giles has since turned his home into a tchotchke-filled paean to Palmer, complete with photos, cleats, and an Arnie-autographed Cadillac. (Not on display: the ball markers Giles once fashioned from Arnie's gold fillings.)

"I wasn't so nervous when I was getting shot at in Vietnam," former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge says of his first round with Palmer more than a decade ago. Ridge's favorite Arnie story defines his friend's love of golf. "It's raining cats and dogs at Latrobe. We reach 17. I said, 'Let's go in and have a Ketel' — we like Ketel One vodka. We drive 25 yards, stop, and he says, 'What the hell are we goin' in for?' We do an about face, play the last two holes and get soaked! [Laughs] If it's in your blood, it's in your blood. He is golf. He's the King."

Or is he? Palmer's grandson has a less-royal take. "In the family, we call him Dumpy," Saunders says with glee. "That came from my sister, Emily. When she was young, she'd try to [call him] 'grumpy,' but it came out 'dumpy.' That stuck." He stifles a laugh. "The world knows him as the King, but to us, he'll always be Dumpy."

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