Sept. 28, 1960: Arnold Palmer at Oakmont
Arnold Palmer was born in September 1929. A month later, Wall Street imploded and times got tough. For Arnold’s father, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, that meant taking on two jobs at the Latrobe Country Club — greenskeeper and golf pro.
Young Arnold rode on the tractor his dad drove on the country club’s golf course. Deacon couldn’t afford fancy toys, so when Arnold played, it was on the links, whacking a ball with a club cut down to his size. He was pretty good at it.
By age 8, Arnold was hanging out at the water hole, waiting for struggling golfers warily eyeing the ditch 120 yards up the fairway. For a nickel, Arnold would hit the ball over for them.
As a freshman at Latrobe High School, Arnold wanted to play football but he was too small — no uniform would fit him. He went home to tell his dad. By then World War II was raging. Deacon had taken a third job, working nights in the melt shop of the Latrobe Steel Co. Deacon came home at night exhausted and bearing scars that would stay with him until his death. Arnold would later recall his dad coming up the steps at home after a shift. “He couldn’t walk,” Arnold said. “He crawled.”
Deacon didn’t want to hear his son complain about football uniforms or limitations. “Quit bellyaching,” Deacon said. “Play it as it lies.”
So Arnold focused on golf. And he was remarkable. He won the Western Pennsylvania junior title three times.
At the country club, though, he was still the son of a club employee. That meant Arnold couldn’t swim in the club pool or enter the locker room without his father.
Sometimes Arnold played golf with guys who worked with his dad in the melt shop. These were men with names like Scootch Goodman and Pickles Vilk. Years later, he’d have other golf buddies with names like Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Hope.
Arnold turned pro and transformed golf in the way that Babe Ruth transformed baseball. He played the game with what seemed like great ease and gusto and was superb. He was cool and comfortable and relaxed and confident. He had fun.
Crowds loved him and followed him around the course. To them, he was not just a man struggling to put a tiny ball into a small hole. He was somebody they recognized.
Bob Drum, a Pittsburgh Press writer who followed Arnold through his peak years, put it like this:
“Arnold looked like he just came from the mill. Now, the masses had somebody to root for.”
Golf would never be the same.
Top photo: Arnold at the Caddie Invitational Tournament in Oakmont in 1963. (Harry Coughanour/Post-Gazette)