Doctor in the House: Q&A With Doc Giffin, Arnold Palmer’s Ace Assistant

December 19, 2016

Beginning Dec. 14, is rolling out a story per day honoring the legendary Arnold Palmer, who died on Sept. 25. These pieces appeared in a special tribute issue of GOLF, which celebrated the life of one of the sport’s greats. Welcome to the 12 Days of Arnie. For more on The King, click here.

Doc Giffin rarely teed it up with Arnold Palmer (“I’m a hacker,” he says), but for 50 years they were daily playing partners. Separated in age by just 10 months, the two would huddle in Palmer’s office, tucked into the property of his Latrobe, Pa., home, to take on the unrelenting busy-ness of being the King: the VIP outings, global travel, myriad press requests, and on and on. In 1966, Palmer asked Doc, then press secretary of the PGA Tour, to be his right hand—and, on occasion, his voice, as the ghostwriter of so much of the ink we thought of as “By Arnold Palmer.” Barely a week after his boss’s passing, the doctor, now 88, is still keeping office hours. Palmer’s absence in Latrobe is, as you’d imagine, profound. As is Doc’s grief, though he tries not to show it. “Doin’ all right,” he says a bit unconvincingly when asked how he is. “Yep, I sure did,” he says softly when delicately reminded that he’s lost a dear friend.

You spent a tremendous amount of time with Arnold. In your 50 years together, what would you say was his highest high?

He offered me the job of his assistant in “66, so I was not with him when he was winning his majors. I can’t attest to that, but I can say this: He was thrilled by the visit his wife arranged, to have President and Mrs. Eisenhower surprise Arnold on his 37th birthday by arriving at the Latrobe house unannounced. The President went to the front door and knocked. Winnie encouraged Arnold to answer it, and President Eisenhower is standing there with a bag in his hand and says to Arnold, “You think you might be able to put up an old man for the night?”

He was a fantastically upbeat person. Do you have memories of a particularly low time for him, in golf or in life?

It’s hard to separate one from the other. I was around for the “66 Open at Olympic Club, when he blew the seven-stroke lead with nine to play. That was a downer. And when his father died suddenly [in 1976], that hit him very hard.

MORE: Buy Sports Illustrated’s Arnold Palmer Commemorative

Did the losses on the course sting for long?

Not really—although he never really got over that “66 Open, or the “61 Masters, where he double-bogeyed the last hole to lose to Gary Player. Those were two that really grinded on him.

He was a man of extraordinary capacity. He juggled so many things: family, friendships, charity work, complex business dealings, a deep and ongoing involvement in the game. What gift did he have that made him capable of shouldering so much for so many decades?

Well, he had great stamina for one thing. And he was athletic. The fact that he was a strongly built man helped him get through a lot, too. He was able to handle most anything that came along. He was one of a kind, without question.

Did he ever tire of being “Arnold Palmer,” of the nonstop pressure that comes with being such a hugely public figure?

I wouldn’t say so. He never would say, “I’ve had enough of this.” He was amazing in that he tolerated things you or I would never tolerate. You know the expression, “Suffer fools gladly”? He had a great capacity for and a love of people. Sometimes I’d see someone talking to him and pressing him for something, and I’d think, “Why doesn’t this guy just go away?” But not Arnold. It’s as simple as this: He liked people.

Is there something essential that you learned from him?

He taught me about integrity. You might have a tendency to brush off some people. Don’t do it. It’s not the right way to do things, and I didn’t.

Did the two of you talk about getting old?

Occasionally. Not heavily, but we’d talk about it.

In a regretful way?

Regretfully, in that we were getting old. The big thing was, we couldn’t do things as well as we used to—particularly in Arnold’s case, because he was such a super athlete.

How painful was it for him to lose the ability to play?

It was painful for me to watch him not be able to do the things he always did so well, particularly his golf—the fact that he couldn’t go down to the range here and hit balls.

Were you at this year’s Masters, when he wasn’t well enough to tee it up with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for their ceremonial first shots?

I wasn’t, but he was determined to be there, and that’s typical of Arnold Palmer. A lot of people in that exact same situation would have begged off. He wanted to be there.

How did he cope with the final months of his decline?

It was hard, really tough on him, particularly because he was unable to walk well. He had to frequently use a walker to get around.

Did you get a chance to say good-bye?

I talked to him in the hospital two days before he passed away. His father died of a massive heart attack, and the doctors said he died instantly after his heart failed. In the days after that, Arnold told me he hoped that when it was his time to go he’d go the same way. His doctors tell me that’s exactly what happened.

Did he impart a certain sentiment to you in that last phone call?

No. There was nothing in that phone call. He was getting ready to have surgery. We talked about that, and things here that had happened in the time he’d been away.

In the days since Arnold’s death, what has it been like in the office without him?

It’s different. In the past, sometimes he’d beat us in. But in recent years, the staff—myself and three others—we’d be here ahead of him, and always anticipate him coming around the back of the building in his golf cart. He’d drive it down from the house at 10 or 10:30 and beep the horn when he was coming.

You miss the beep.

Yeah, I miss him coming into the office and saying, “Good morning! Well, what do you have for me today?” Miss the beep.