Four Decades After His Death, Arnold Palmer's Father Gets His Due
Ted Bishop knew what we all know, that the central relationship in Arnold's life was the one he had with his father, Milfred Jerome "Deacon" Palmer. Deke, the greenkeeper and head pro at Latrobe Country Club, near Pittsburgh, taught Arnold how to grip a club, drive a tractor, treat people high and low. If you eat with Arnold in the grill room at Orlando's Bay Hill, he might show you the table where his father had his last lunch after playing 27 holes, before lying down in a guest room at the lodge and dying of a heart attack at age 71. That was in 1976. When Arnold recalled that memory the other day, his eyes welled.
But Bishop wasn't in Arnold's second-floor office in the Bay Hill clubhouse to discuss Deacon Palmer. It was March 2013, and the PGA president was there to talk to the King about Bishop's pet project, to try to convince the USGA to back off its proposed ban on anchored putting. Arnold didn't say much. I am a USGA man, he thought. He's played all his life by the USGA's rules. Arnold broke the silence by saying something about Deacon that Bishop did not know.
"My father was a cripple," Arnold said in that foghorn voice. When Palmer speaks, he makes every word count. "He had infantile paralysis. Polio. That's why he was for Roosevelt, March of Dimes, all of that. And do you know for some years he could not join the PGA of America because of it? The PGA had a policy for membership: no physical handicaps."
Bishop was well versed in the history of the organization's constitution. He knew about its Caucasian-only clause that somehow survived until 1961. He tried to tell Arnold that there was never a clause that discriminated against the physically disabled. Arnold was not interested. He knew what he knew.
A bit later that day, Bishop asked a staff member at the PGA of America headquarters to conduct some research on Deacon, who could do one-handed chin-ups in the Latrobe maintenance shed but walked the hills of Augusta National with a pronounced limp, the residue of his condition. From his childhood, Arnold remembers a metal "contraption" that his father wore on his left leg. About two weeks later, Bishop sent Arnold a two-page letter detailing what he had learned: that Deacon, as a teenager, was on the construction crew that built Latrobe Country Club in the early 1920s, that he became the Latrobe greenkeeper in 1926 and its pro in 1932. That would have made him eligible to join the PGA of America in 1937, after the required five-year waiting period. But Deacon did not become a member until 1946. Arnold graduated from Latrobe High in 1947. Now and again, he heard his father's unfiltered opinions about the PGA of America.
Bishop—an owner-operator of a 45-hole public golf facility, Legends Golf Club, in Franklin, Ind—concluded that something odd must have happened with Deacon. In the letter, Bishop told Arnold about his daughter, who works with her father at Legends, and the large picture of Arnold and Deacon that hangs on her office wall. Bishop wrote that when he pursued PGA of America membership in the "80s, "I was often looked down on by PGA members in the Indiana Section because of my background as a greenkeeper."
A year went by. Bishop heard nothing back from Palmer. In early 2014, he asked Arnold's close friend Dow Finsterwald—a winner of the PGA Championship, the missing title on Arnold's résumé—if he could find out if Arnold even had the letter. Finsterwald reported back, "He has it in the top drawer of his desk. He's trying to figure out how to respond to it." A couple of weeks after that, Bishop was watching the three-part documentary about Arnold that ran on Golf Channel, which Arnold co-founded in 1995. In the documentary, Arnold repeated his belief that his father had been excluded from the PGA of America because of his disability.
Bishop then spoke to Golf Channel president Mike McCarley about Arnold's strained relationship with the PGA. How could it be improved? McCarley had an idea, and Bishop ran with it like the halfback on the Heisman Trophy. In November, in Indianapolis, at the annual PGA of America meeting, the association awarded its very first Deacon Palmer Award, for a member who has overcome a serious personal challenge to serve the game and his or her community.
Bishop wasn't there to award it, but his legacy will survive one unfortunate tweet. Deacon Palmer, the inaugural winner, wasn't there to receive it, but his legacy will survive as long as the game does, and as long as there are people in it following the example he taught his son: Treat people as you want to be treated yourself.