The Other Arnold: Palmer’s daughter reflects on the chasm between the brand and the man
MONDAY, SEPT. 25, 2017
If you want to be literal about it, Peg Palmer’s year of magical thinking concluded today. Her father, Arnold Palmer, died on this day one year ago. A person’s emotional life, of course, cannot actually be marked so tidily, within the squares of your old-fashioned, wall-hanging calendar. Mourning periods may have an identifiable starting date, but their ends are murky, if they ever end at all. What you can say with certainty is that Peg’s year of mourning began at a Pittsburgh hospital called Shadyside on Sept. 25, 2016. That was the day her father, unexpectedly, took his final breath. Golf lost its greatest icon but Peg lost (her word) Daddy. So Sept. 25, 2016, is the date that marks the start of Peg Palmer’s year of magical thinking. And now it is one year later. She spent the afternoon on I-95, heading north.
“Nobody was expecting him to die that day,” she told me recently. Peg and I have been talking, off and on, for the past year. She’s 61, and the older of Arnold and Winnie Palmer’s two daughters. “He was preparing for heart surgery. He said to the doctor, ‘Should I be worried?’
“The doctor said, ‘No.’
“And Daddy said, ‘Then I won’t be.’
“The doctor was great. Everybody at the hospital was. They didn’t treat Daddy like Arnold Palmer. They treated him like they would treat any patient. That’s Pittsburgh for you. But his heart was weak and it just gave out. It was fast. God, I hope I go like that. But not in a hospital.
“Kit [Palmer’s second wife] was with him when he died. They had that moment together, as they should have. I don’t think she’s given nearly the credit she should get for being such a wonderful companion to my father after my mother died. Because he wasn’t easy. He wasn’t nice a lot of the time. And she always had a smile for him. And she believed he was a better person than he was. She accepted him as he was. It was the ultimate love.”
I am not going to note for you the many times Peg talked through tears, both of sorrow and happiness, as we spoke. But this was one of them.
Peg was in a hallway when her father was walking in his hospital room and collapsed late on that Sunday afternoon. He had been scheduled for surgery early Monday morning. When Peg reentered her father’s hospital room, doctors were trying to revive him. Her sister, Amy Saunders, was on her way to the hospital, trying to figure out a route there as city traffic had been reconfigured for Pittsburgh’s 10K Great Race.
In Peg’s view of the family, Amy holds the unofficial title of dutiful daughter, among more formal titles, like president of Latrobe Country Club. Amy’s husband, Roy, is an executive at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which Palmer developed with others. Their son, Sam Saunders, is a touring pro. In the wake of Arnold’s death, Amy is now in charge of Arnold Palmer Enterprises and Palmer’s charitable foundation. In his life, and in his will, Arnold left the keys to Amy, working in conjunction with Alastair Johnston, an IMG executive who has worked closely with Palmer since 1978.
Peg and her father butted heads for half a century, until Arnold was well into his 80s, when father and daughter just agreed to disagree. Peg is convinced that the air and water in Latrobe, Pa., has been sullied by industrial waste and is certain it impacted her parents’ health. (Her mother died in 1999 at age 65. Her father was 87.) Arnold—as conservative as Peg is liberal—was completely dismissive. There was a deep love between father and his first-born, along with other emotions. Not hate. Disappointment would be more like it, profound at times, and it ran both ways. Peg feels her father could have been more present. Arnold felt that Peg presumed to know too much. An old name would come up and Arnold would say, “You don’t remember him.” And Peg would say, “Yeah, I do. I’m only 26 years younger than you.” Still, a lot happened in those 26 years.
Peg is twice divorced and lives in North Carolina with her third husband, a general contractor and a builder of bike trails. (“He’s a mountain man,” Peg said. A mountain man with an English degree from UNC.) The three marriages were hard for Arnold to process, as he valued constancy in all things. But Peg’s view is that her father often put his own wishes and needs ahead of the needs of his two children and their mother. “The power, the fame, the money, at some point it distorted who he was,” Peg said. “Marketing turned Daddy into somebody who was pretty bland, and he was not bland.” Mark McCormack and Alastair Johnston and the company they worked for, IMG, comes up often in her conversations. McCormack, the founder of IMG, was a marketing genius. Johnston got the deals signed and tracked the numbers. Peg finds Johnston, a native Scot, to be opaque and cold in their business dealings. But her standards are outside the norm. She is uncommonly giving and open.
In our long conversations over the past year, Peg spoke often of her father’s public life as if he was a character on a 1950s black-and-white TV show, one so sanitized for public consumption as to be unreal. She said, “People should know the truth.” This space is dedicated to Peg’s truth, and she’s ambivalent about sharing it. “It’s not like I’ve had a tough life. It’s not like I have been a refugee. In material terms, my father provided for everything we could need.” Still, there is her daddy, and your Arnold, and the yawning gap between them. “Self-examination,” she said, is a useful thing. She has no desire to upend anything. Her goal is a deeper level of understanding, for herself, and maybe for you.
Peg is a reader, as was her mother. One book (among many) that made an impact on her is The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. The book is Didion’s spare mental diary of the grief she felt in the year after her husband’s death. That phrase, magical thinking, is not a gauzy feel-good notion in this context. It is a term of psychology that explains the phenomena by which a person believes that an outcome can be avoided, if one thinks about it hard enough and long enough. Yes, it’s a cousin to insanity.
Still, in its popular (and mistaken) use, magical thinking implies moments of clarity and insight, even if they come in the deranged state that accompanies intense mourning. Those moments helped make Didion’s slender book a bible in the literature of grief. Peg read it some years ago and took something from it. It wasn’t our intention, to speak of her past 12 months as a year of magical thinking. But that’s how it played out.
“Early on, what Daddy did was entertain people, give them something to look forward to,” Peg said. That would be roughly 1954, when he won the U.S. Amateur, to 1966, one of his many near-misses in U.S. Opens. “He gave people permission to take risks and to have a sense of humor about themselves, as he did. But as the money came, as more people at more companies relied on him, things changed. He always liked to say, ‘Well, I can give this all up and just dig ditches.’ But at some point, that wasn’t true. The money can make you delusional. My mother saw other golfers and celebrities going out and starting second families. She didn’t want that to happen with us, so she really had no choice. She gave my father a lot of leeway.
“So he was having a lot of fun. He had that Rat Pack mentality. If you look at Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis when they were young, they were having fun. They were amazing. Who wouldn’t want that? But they tried to stay in that moment forever, stay young forever, like Peter Pan. And you can’t. They carried it on for way too long. If you look at those Dean Martin roasts from the 1970s, they’re so sad. So there’s some of that with my father, a certain arrested development. He liked to indulge his appetites and felt he had earned the right to do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. I don’t think he regretted a thing. I don’t think he had any regrets, at all, about anything, except maybe the way he played certain shots in certain tournaments.
“He liked to say, ‘I worked my ass off.’ He had that hillbilly mentality. Our whole family does. We’re hillbillies. And he did work hard. When I was young, he worked very hard. Practicing, hitting balls. But over time his work became being whoever other people needed him to be. He didn’t have an ideology. You can’t have an ideology when you will do whatever you need to do to succeed.” As Peg describes her father, he had morphed, from golfer to golfer-businessman to celebrity. But his iconic status was rooted in his meat-and-potatoes golf, with his virile visor-flipping in victory. It was rooted in feats he had done a long time ago, and in the small-town America he represented.
You might read some of Peg’s commentary as unloving, or at least lacking in love. I would urge you to take another view. You’re hearing from the grown daughter, deep into middle age, who has dealt all her life with both the manufactured image and the actual man. But the private moments she describes with her famous father are intense, fragile and ordinary. They are filled with heartache and love.
Peg was born in 1956 and grew up in a modest late 1950s ranch house across the street from the Latrobe Country Club. She left Latrobe at age 16 to go to an all-girls boarding school, the Masters School, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She graduated in 1974 and from William and Mary in 1978, with a degree in English. Her first husband was a surgeon at Duke. Her second husband was a stockbroker and is the father of her two children. The older of the two is Will Wears, who played golf at Loyola University Maryland and is finishing up his course work there now. The younger is Anna Wears, who is studying psychology at the University of North Carolina, after playing golf at Wake Forest for two years. In their high school years, Peg and the children moved back to Latrobe, chiefly so they could all be nearer to her father. She describes that as one of the best things she ever did.
Being the daughter of Arnold Palmer has not made Peg rich, but it has made her comfortable, and she has lived a life that few could know. When she left Latrobe for William and Mary, her father flew Peg and her belongings in his jet, to cite one small example. But what she remembers best from that hot day is her father hauling up her bags to her third-floor dorm room. She is not sure what will come to her and her children as the estate is settled, though it is likely to be millions. “The money is really not important to me,” she told me. “My husband and I live modestly. We live in 1,600 square feet in Durham.” The warehouse in Latrobe that holds the Palmer memorabilia is triple in size.
We were speaking of intimate things. In my experience, Peg is capable of speaking only of intimate things, although it was a sort of mundane pleasure when, in August, she gave me a report on Will’s play in the Pennsylvania Open. (“Seventy-three yesterday but raring to go today,” she told me after the first round. When I praised the score, Peg said, “Not when 62 is low!”) Will did not make the 36-hole cut. But, then, his grandfather never won the event, either. I asked Peg what it was like to be in the hospital room with her father after he had died.
“It wasn’t him anymore. It was just a body. He was gone. The harder thing was seeing him in pain, to see him helpless and sick. But it wasn’t until Daddy had died that I could really grieve for my mother, even though she died 18 years earlier. I didn’t want him to see how painful her death was for me. After my mother died, I don’t think my father ever gave her the credit she deserved. And that really made me angry.”
Arnold’s ashes were scattered four days after his death, on Sept. 29, a windy Friday at Latrobe Country Club, which Palmer owned and which his father, Deacon, helped build. Deacon’s ashes had been set loose on the course, as had Winnie’s. Arnold was nominally a Presbyterian as an adult, but religion was not central to his life, Peg said, and then noting that an archabbot from St. Vincent College in Latrobe came to see him on the day that turned out to be his last, and brought him peace.
Still, “the golf course was his church,” Peg said. “I never heard him talk about an afterlife. We didn’t have religious conversations. The ceremony wasn’t really religious, but there was a minister there, Clark Kerr from Latrobe Presbyterian, and he grew up in Latrobe and really knows the family, so he added a lot to it. When the ashes first went up in the air, the wind blew them back in our faces.” The Palmers, being the practical people they are, moved.
On Oct. 4, two days after a U.S. victory in the Ryder Cup, there was a memorial service for Palmer in the magnificent, high-columned basilica at St. Vincent College. Three-thousand people filled the space and thousands more watched from another outpost on campus. Jack Nicklaus, Sam Saunders and others spoke beautifully about Palmer as a rugged sportsman, a pilot and a genial elder statesman. Golf Channel, which Palmer co-founded, carried the service live and without commercial interruption. I was there, sitting with my friend Neil Oxman, Tom Watson’s caddie. When the service was over, Palmer’s Citation X, an impressive and literal symbol of success and freedom, circled the basilica before disappearing into the clouds.
“The whole thing smacked a little too much of Golf Channel to me,” Peg said when I asked her for her take on the service. “There was something unreal about it. It was like an awards show. There were people clapping in a Catholic basilica! My mother would have been appalled. But what are you going to do? Alastair planned it, with others. I was not among them. It was a hard way to say goodbye. But Daddy would have been pleased. The Ryder Cup was there. The actual cup.
“What made the biggest impact on me was seeing Jack and Barbara Nicklaus. They have always been so sincere and so affectionate. They have always been incredibly decent and they have always taken the high road. Jack is a person who shows up. He’s there physically. He’s there mentally. He’s there in every way. Jack and my dad were close, but different. All those people seeking my father’s autograph, they validated him. They empowered him.” Peg didn’t need to say what we both know to be true, that Jack does not define his life by his popularity. But he does like being known (at least in some circles) as the greatest golfer ever.
As best I can tell, Arnold had far more business success than Jack, although both had their setbacks. “It was very important to my father to be known as a good businessman,” Peg said. “The creation of Golf Channel was important to him. The start of the senior tour. His work as an architect.” The list is long, and his deal with the Arizona Beverage Company, to sell a tea-lemonade drink with Arnold Palmer’s name attached to it, is high on it. (Peg, and many others, object to the company’s use of high fructose corn syrup in the vintage known as Arnold Palmer Lite.) Palmer’s general approach to business was to get paid upfront and negotiate for a piece of the action. (Nicklaus tended to be more entrepreneurial and put up his own money.) Palmer’s estate, by one estimate, is worth more than $800 million.
Peg was thinking about going to the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. (Displayed prominently on the tournament’s website is the hash tag #lifewellplayed. That is also the name of a book by Palmer, published posthumously.) But bad East Coast weather complicated her travel plans and in the end she did not go.
She was pleased to learn that the media center at Bay Hill was being renamed for Palmer’s longtime aide de camp and pressman, Doc Giffin, who has worked for Palmer since 1966. But she said she was beyond disappointed to learn that Johnston announced the new name at a pre-tournament press conference that Giffin did not attend, or even know about before hand. Giffin only learned about the renaming of the building when a reporter called Giffin, at home in Greensburg, Pa., to ask him about it.
Later, the NBC affiliate in Orlando obtained Palmer’s will, which stipulated that Giffin, and seven other Palmer employees, would receive $25,000 each from the estate. Peg was surprised at how little Giffin was receiving, and she was upset that he was being grouped with other staffers who had served her father for far shorter periods. “It was very egalitarian, but what Doc received was a pittance,” Peg said. “He is the most loyal person on the face of the earth. And he was there every day, right as rain. It’s not right.” She doesn’t know why her father was so penurious with Doc, while recognizing that it was not her money to give away.
Arnold’s single best-known affiliation was with the Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club. He won the Masters four times and he attended the Masters every year from 1955 to 2016. He became a member of the club in 1999 and was the honorary Thursday morning starter of the tournament from 2007 through 2015. The 2017 starting ceremony doubled as a memorial tribute to Palmer, with the club’s chairman, Billy Payne, as the lone speaker. Nicklaus and Gary Player each hit ceremonial opening tee shots while Kit, her eyes damp in the early-morning air, watched from the first tee. It was a moving public event. Peg was not there for it. She says she never received an invitation to attend the tournament. (She suspects the invitation was sent to her father’s home in Latrobe and never forwarded to her.) She knows she could have made one call and had any confusion about her invitation cleared up. She was not eager to do that.
“The last time I went to Augusta was when he played in his last Masters,” Peg said. That was in 2004, when Palmer played for the 50th consecutive time. “He talked about his history with Augusta that day and he never once mentioned my mother, not one thing about her going there with the trailer or any of it. After that, I never really wanted to go back. The important thing in any of these kinds of events is the people. And the people change.”
Earlier this year, Peg told me that some of her happiest memories of her father came as they sat in his workshop in Latrobe. “He might be putting a piece of lead tape on a club but thinking about when he has used that club and where he might use it again,” she said. “It was a ritual. He’d put on a piece of tape. Waggle it. Put on another piece. Waggle it.
“He put the time into his clubs because he loved doing it—he was a man who did what he loved. My dad was a manly man, kind of macho, kind of a chauvinist, but he was also a very creative person. The workshop gave him a chance to be creative. It wasn’t mindless repetition. It was part of a process. He was at his most focused, his most engaged, his most peaceful, when he was in the workshop. It was a tonic for him. He liked seeing sparks fly, he liked all the stimuli of the workshop.
“Working on the clubs also kept him in touch with his working-class roots. I think my dad really celebrated the working class, and he felt connected to people who did things for themselves, as he did. That helped him be the architect of his own destiny. Doing things with his own tools, with his own hands, that was part of his identity.
“Sitting there, it was like being enveloped in the way we grew up. It was like being with my grandfather, who also was always fixing things. It was a way of being physically close to my dad. He would test me, a lot. It was always a chance to teach me a lesson. Or he’d be curious about what I was doing, or what I thought. A lot of my rambling probably sounded pretty inane to him, or self-involved. I was growing up.”
Another place she felt peace with her father was in the air, with father at the helm of a plane he owned. “He could be hard to engage in conversation but he liked talking about concrete things, factual things,” Peg told me about a year ago, near the start of this year of magical thinking. Later, she said, “He was a confident pilot. He had seen a lot of things. He always had camaraderie with his co-pilots. It made me feel safe, to be with him in the air. It was impressive, that he had mastered that skill.”
Her father was complicated, much more so than we would know, and her relationship with him was, too—far more complicated than I can convey here or even understand.
Peg said, “I know Daddy felt I didn’t appreciate him and that could not be farther from the truth. I’m just so glad that we had those years in Latrobe, when my kids were in high school. Because they got to know their grandfather, good and bad and everything in between. And the life he lead, his 87 years—it was an amazing life.”
It was the one-year anniversary of her father’s death. She said, “As a young man, he lived to upset the status quo. That changed, but I remember that. That changing the status quo is a good thing, at times.” Palmer was the working-class kid who won the 1954 U.S. Amateur. He was the American golfer who reignited American interest in the British Open. He practically invented the senior tour. “He changed the status quo, but he was always polite about it. He always knew who he owed his opportunity to.”
One of Peg Palmer’s insights, in this past year, is that “Arnold Palmer” became a brand over the years. And with her father’s death, and over time, the brand, with all that marketing power behind it, will subsume any real sense of whom her father was. She accepts that. But the brand means nothing to her. She knew her father, and she loved him.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]