The last time I was in Arnold Palmer’s office in Latrobe, Pa., I heard it immediately, the unmistakable ring of steel being ground against a buffing wheel.
Gina, his secretary, asked if I wanted coffee with no more thought to the ear-splitting noise than she might give the patter of rain on a roof. It was a normal part of her day, no different than the whir of a printer or Muzak in a lobby.
It was nothing, just Arnold Palmer, arguably the greatest living legend in golf, in his workshop grinding the flange on a wedge.
His office building is an old house that sits on a hill overlooking the gates of the Arnold Palmer Latrobe Country Club just a few feet from the house he and Winnie bought in the 1950s. He and his present wife, Kit, have since built a new home on the same hillside. The original house, an L-shaped ranch with the garage on one side has been added onto so many times it looks like an elementary school. But the office building remains largely unchanged, white with a green awning, not too dissimilar from the cabins beside the 10th fairway at Augusta National.
Unlike the Butler or Eisenhower Cabins, the largest and most prevalent room in the Palmer office complex is the workshop where boxes of grips adorn the corners, and clubheads and shafts are stacked on shelves along the walls.
Arnie probably couldn’t find the “on” button on an iPad, but he could lay hands on grip tape and epoxy in seconds. Callaway, the company Mr. Palmer has been associated with for the last decade, sends him components instead of assembled clubs, because they know he’s going to change everything out anyway.
When I played golf with him in Latrobe (one of the highlights of a life in the game), he showed up with his own golf cart that had two staff bags strapped to the back. They were full. I casually slipped up and counted, then turned to other player in our group and said, “He’s playing with 44 golf clubs.”
“Oh, he’s taken some out,” the guy said. “He normally plays with 60.”
He has always been that way: tinkering, tweaking, working on the things that really matter without pretense or fanfare.
When I first traveled to the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, the late Ed Seay and I were looking for Mr. Palmer on Tuesday morning before the event. Nobody knew where he was, until Ed finally said, “Has anyone checked the cart barn?” Sure enough, Arnie was at the workbench sanding brake shoes.
“Sorry, I can’t shake your hand,” he said to me. “I don’t want to get grease on you.”
Even at age 83, he still works on the little things. Whether it’s reviewing a layout with the architects in his design company or riding out to a tee box with the superintendent to discuss compaction and mowing patterns, he moves a little slower and takes a little longer to gather his thoughts, but he is as active and hardworking as any octogenarian in the country.
The big question is, why? No one deserves to kick up his feet and relax more than Arnold Palmer. He has done more for the professional game than any player in the last century and laid the foundation for the worldwide popularity of what had been an insular, niche sport. Without Arnold, Tiger Woods would be Earl Anthony (the greatest professional bowler of all time, for those of you who just said, “who?”).
Why would Mr. Palmer continue to work so hard and care so much?
The answer is so easy that he raises his eyebrows and smiles when the question is even asked.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the game.”
Sometimes greatness is just that simple.