Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arnie’s Hometown

Latrobe Country Club

Someone once asked world famous golfer Arnold Palmer if he could choose anywhere he would want to live, where would it be. “That’s easy,” Palmer replied, “in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.” While many celebrity athletes choose to live far from the place of their childhood and youth, not Palmer. And the widely acclaimed champion golfer has defiantly left his mark on this modest steel town just 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh along U.S. Route 30, the old Lincoln Highway.

Set in the beautiful mountains of the Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, it’s the home of Latrobe Speciality Steel Company that produces high quality steel for the aerospace and technology markets. Saint Vincent College, a Benedictine school where the Pittsburgh Steelers hold their preseason training each summer, is located here, and its not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater.

Latrobe was once home to Rolling Rock Beerbefore it was sold and moved to New Jersey, and the banana split (ice cream sundae) was invented here in 1904.In 1920, a group of local industrialists, bankers, and professional men formed the Latrobe Country Club and built a nine hole golf courseon 63 acres of rough, hilly terrain. Helping with the construction project was a local teenager Milfred J. Deacon “Deke” Palmer, who would later be hired as club superintendent in charge of keeping the course in good condition. When the club professional left a few years later, he is given this position as well.

Deacon’s young son Arnold would help his dad around the club and after members had finished for the day they would play a few holes of golf. Deacon had cut off a set of clubs to fit the youngster. The young Palmer plays golf at Latrobe High School losing only one match in four years and wins the Pennsylvania State Championship at age 17. He receives a golf scholarship to Wake Forest College in North Carolina winning a number of championships there.

After three years service with the U.S. Coast Guard, the talented young golfer wins his first the U.S. Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit at Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, in 1954. In November of that year, Palmer turns professional and one month later marries Winnie Walzer. Soon the young couple acquire a pleasant six-room ranch house near the Latrobe Country Club.

Over the next few years he wins numerous professional tournaments and becomes one of the tour’s top money earners. Palmer wins The Masters Championship at Augusta, Georgia, (his first of four wins here) in 1958. Following his first Masters win he meets President Dwight D. Eisenhower who invites Palmer to golf with him. This begins a long series of friendly personal relationships with U.S. Presidents. One wall in his office reception area is devoted to photos and letters he has received from presidents over the years.

For Palmer’s 37th birthday his wife Winnie surprised him by secretly inviting the Eisenhowers (then retired in Gettysburg, PA) to visit for a weekend. The President with small suitcase in hand rings the doorbell and Winne sends her husband to answer it. Palmer is speachless as Eisenhower says, “Coulod you put up an old man for the night.”

In the early 1960s the Latrobe Country Club purchases additional adjacent land and Arnold Palmer and his father design and supervise construction of an additional nine hole course and improvements to the old course. In 1971, Palmer acquires full ownership of the Club. Many more improvements are made to the course and Club facilities and the 6,407 yard, par 72 course matures into a beautiful and challenging test of golf. Today Amy Saunders (Palmer’s daughter) and her husband Roy manage the Latrobe property as well as the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, also owned by Palmer.

The greens are particularly difficult at the Latrobe Country Club. “Just the way Mr. Palmer likes them,” says Doc Giffin, Palmer’s long time assistant (a former sports writer for the Pittsburgh Press and later PGA tour media director). “They roll the greens here every day and they are exceptionally smooth and fast.”Palmer’s name can be seen in various locations
around Latrobe. There’s Arnold Palmer Drive, Arnold Palmer Motors (Buick and Cadillac), and Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. He owns and still flies a Cessna Citation X the fastest business jet.

Another place his name appears is at the Arnold Palmer Pavilion of the University of Pittsburgh Health Systems cancer hospital and research facility here. Palmer successfully battled cancer in the late 1990s and his first wife Winne died from cancer in 1999. Since then he has contributed millions toward research and treatment of the disease.

Near his home is a small white frame building with Palmer's familiar golf umbrella logo above the door. His office is located here along with displays of dozens of trophies, photos, awards, and letters. An oil portrait of Palmer by Norman Rockwell is here along with 15 covers from Sports Illustrated featuring the champion golfer. Mulligan, Palmer’s Golden Labrador, is a familiar sight around the building and grounds. Next to his office is a workshop where he works on his clubs for an hour or two almost every day.While the Latrobe Country Club is a private facility, there is plenty to do and see in the area.
Persons planning to visit here, should begin at http://www.laurelhighlandscvb.

Arnold Palmers Office

Reception Room Presidential Display

James Weaver
GolfWiz Blog
Senior Travel Writer