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At 81, Palmer Still Charging Through Life

ORLANDO l He doesn’t need to work. If anyone deserves to while away his remaining years with his feet in the air and a mojito in his hand, it’s Arnold Palmer. Yet, there he is at 81, up early and in the gym every morning; in his office reviewing contracts, signing autographs (he eventually gets to everything people send him); working with his design team on the latest golf course projects; in his workshop bending lies, changing grips and grinding flanges, and always moving.

Granted, he moves slower now, often shuffling and halting with a bit of an old-man stoop: “puttering” as one of his staffers called it. Seeing him struggle to get out of a chair causes wistful pangs of sadness as we remember the broad shoulders and strong hands that produced some golf’s greatest moments.

But if you watch him long enough the sadness goes away. You realize that the steps might be shorter and the shoulders a little slumped, but age hasn’t slowed the King down a step. Like the Energizer Bunny, he keeps going and going and going.

“You would have a hard time finding (current Tour players) who could equal his character, but they’d also have a hard time keeping up with his travel schedule,” said Erik Larsen, executive vice president of Arnold Palmer Design Company and president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “The design company is like his favorite toy other than the plane. He loves it, and he is on the road with it a lot.”

And these are not trips between Latrobe and Orlando. In December, Arnie flew to a site in Spain to work with his design team on a project. From there he went straight to Morocco where he spent a week with the Royal Family in Rabat, developing the kind of close, personal relationship that has been a trademark of his businesses for half a century.

After the meetings, he took an extra day to tour the city, walking through the bazaar, posing for pictures, and making a thousand new friends: something he does as naturally as breathing.

In the next few months, he will go to Brazil, where APDC has three courses in various stages of planning and construction. He will also visit Uruguay, where they have one design project. Then it’s off to China, where they have two courses in Kunming (in the foothills of the Himalayas, just north of Laos), one under construction in Chengdu, one that just opened in Beijing, and another that is about to break ground in Xi’an (site of the terracotta warriors).

At home, he is redesigning Wexford Country Club on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and he continues to tinker with Pebble Beach and, of course, the Bay Hill Club, where his work received rave reviews during his invitational tournament.

Tiger Woods said, “It’s a very different golf course than what I played in a couple of years ago after the redo. Most of the greens have been raised. Bunkers are different, and the greens are way more firm. I know that the routing is pretty much the same. But he did squeeze in a couple tee shots and shaped the greens a little bit differently. It’s one heck of a test.”

Praise was even more effusive in the locker room where players made a point of finding Arnie to congratulate him on the great work.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things being said about the golf course, and it really means a lot to me to hear the good reviews coming from these players,” Arnie said.

It would have been easy for the King to walk away from course design after his long-time partner Ed Seay died from cancer in 2007. Building more courses wasn’t going to change Arnie’s legacy, and with the economy going south, it would have been the perfect time to wrap a bow around that business and call it a career. Instead, he doubled down, moving the design offices to Bay Hill and increasing his involvement.

Since Seay’s passing, Palmer Design has received universal applause for its Pebble Beach remodeling. The company also now has two offices in China, and it is a leading contender to build the course in Rio that will reintroduce golf to the Olympic Games. And Arnie is intimately engaged in all of it.

“I meet with him three or four times a week,” Larsen said. “He comes into the offices here, or I’ll go up to his offices and we’ll review drawings. He’s on the road, meeting and doing site visits, not because he needs to be, but because he loves it.”

Just as he loves being an indefatigable presence at Bay Hill during tournament week. On a cart, hanging around the putting green, in the media center and television tower and locker room and, of course, behind the 18th green to congratulate the winner. Arnie remains true to his nature, the perfect host and the perfect gentleman.

According to Larsen, “You shouldn’t expect anything different. That’s him. It’s the way he’s always been. He might be 81, but he’s never going to change.”

And that is a gift for which we all should give thanks.


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