Jeff Shain

Burgers with The King illustrated Palmer’s Everyman touch

It was the only time I’ve dined with royalty, and the setting could not be less regal. Or more fitting.

Burgers with Arnold Palmer, relaxing at a patio table on a late-spring afternoon at Latrobe Country Club. No notebook, no voice recorder. Just two guys — and Arnie’s second wife, Kit — brought together by golf sharing small glimpses into our lives.

As golf writer for the Orlando Sentinel, I had made arrangements to spend a day in Latrobe on the way back from the Memorial Tournament in 2011. Though Palmer’s winter residency at Bay Hill was familiar to readers, it had been several years since we’d paid a visit to Latrobe.

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(Not to mention that Palmer was then 81 and ... well, you never know.)

Always true to his roots, Palmer’s house sits on a hill across the highway from Latrobe Country Club. Two houses, really — the ranch edition he bought in the 1950s with first wife Winnie, and the newer home built after marrying Kit in 2005. There’s also a third house for other family, plus an office building.

After a brief tour of the grounds, I met Palmer in his workshop — not surprisingly, the largest workspace in his office. Even in his final years, he loved to tinker with clubs. I’d already seen a smaller workshop in his condo across the street from Bay Hill.

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We talked about his affinity for Latrobe and the club where his father, Deacon, was greenskeeper and eventually its golf professional. He recalled working at his father’s side, and of occasionally stealing away to hit balls himself. We talked about that famous tractor from the old Pennzoil commercials.

Palmer mentioned the tractor was still on the grounds, in a warehouse off the second fairway. In running condition. He even made arrangements for me to see it before I left.

And as the interview wound down, lunch beckoned. He suggested we grab something at the club. Well, if you’re asking ...

The sun was out, so Palmer suggested we eat outside. Kit joined us, and we ordered burgers from the snack bar next to the pool. Medium well, cooked to perfection.

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Now it was Palmer’s turn to ask questions — how long I’d been in Orlando, where I grew up, family details. What I remember most is the conversation somehow landed on my daughter, who was exploring colleges at the time.

She’d just completed a grand road trip with her mom that took them from Florida to upstate New York to Chicago to St. Louis and back across the South. Palmer seemed pleased when I mentioned the trip included a stop at Wake Forest, where he spent his college days but left a year early.

It was the most vivid illustration of the personal touch that endeared Palmer to his Army. I’d seen it from a distance — watching him often stop to chat along the ropes at Bay Hill or Augusta — but now it was my kid “The King” was asking about.

“You just treat people the way you want to be treated,” Palmer has said more than once.

And when I encountered Arnie and Kit some months later back at Bay Hill, they inquired where my girl had ultimately taken her studies. I felt kind of bad about telling him she was at Boston University. He faked a scowl, then smiled and offered a thumbs-up.

A quick aside: While writing this piece, it’s occurred to me how often I use thumbs-up to acknowledge a kind deed, a good idea or an agreement of some sort. I didn’t always do that. I’m fairly certain I picked that up during my time in Orlando.

Thumbs up, Arnie.

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