The only time the look of pleasant serenity temporarily flees Jerry Palmer’s face is when he’s asked if there are any burdens to going through life being the much–younger brother of one of the world’s most famous and popular men. His brow furrows, his lips purse and his perpetually jovial expression takes on the appearance of a game show contestant about to be bounced from the jackpot round.
C’mon, no burdens? The bookstores are filled with oh–poor–me tales of disgruntled siblings who grew up in the dysfunctional shadows of world–renown figures. They complain of being unloved, of being under–appreciated, of being snubbed by a public that can’t see beyond their sibling’s celebrity.
But, clearly, that’s one book Jerry Palmer, 63, younger brother to Arnold Palmer by 15 years, simply couldn’t write.
“Honestly, I can’t think of a single burden,” he says. “I enjoy my life. I have two wonderful children, a job I love and I have one of the world’s biggest celebrities for a big brother and the celebrity just happens to be a great guy in every way.”
Naturally, during the course of a 90–minute interview in his office and at the Men’s Grille Room at Latrobe Country Club, the course where the Palmer children grew up and where Jerry has been club general manager since 1988, the giddy inverse came up a time or two.
So, any perks to being Arnold Palmer’s brother? Oh, yeah. Check it out:
—You get to chat with presidents and first ladies during lavish ceremonies in the White House
—You get to meet and be chummy with actors, athletes and powerful businessmen and women from around the world
—Beautiful celebrities mistake you for your dashing older sibling
—You get to play the finest golf courses in the world
—And, hey, Arnold Palmer’s your brother!
Jerry Palmer was born in 1944, the second youngest of Deacon and Doris’s four children (in order, Arnold, Louis Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarni). He was but 11 years old when Arnold first made national headlines for winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship. It’s a precocious age when impressionable younger brothers begin an enduring hero worship over slightly older brothers who bang doubles in scruffy sandlot games attended by handfuls of neighborhood youths.
Jerry Palmer spent his formative years watching his brother ascend the ranks of golfing greatness and earn credit for turning a country club diversion into a national insanity. He was 14 in 1958 when Arnold Palmer won the first of four Masters Tournaments, an epochal event that launched an enduring friendship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The ensuing years saw him earning his first Pennsylvania driver’s license and attending Latrobe High School’s class of ’62 prom while Arnold became an international golfing sensation and friends with luminaries like Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Richard Nixon.
It’s easy enough to understand the love between brothers with humble foundations. But when your brother is energizing a nation with his electric charisma, how could a boy not be indelibly charmed into believing that his big brother was the greatest in the whole world? Especially when everyone everywhere was assuring him, indeed, that’s exactly what he was.
“Really, there hasn’t been a time in my life when he wasn’t a celebrity,” Jerry says. “Even when I was a really little kid, he was always getting headlines and honors for his golf. And, yeah, I idolized him.
“My ambition growing up was to get a job working for Arnold Palmer.”
Today and for the past 33 years, he’s lived that ambition at the historical touchstone that is at the center of all things Arnie, Latrobe Country Club, the jewel–like golf playground nestled in the scenic Laurel Highlands 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. And jewel–like is no exaggeration. Many visitors and invited guests pose for pictures beside the clubhouse baubles Palmer won through 92 professional victories around the world. His trophies, vases and historical artifacts are festooned throughout the unassuming, yet elegant clubhouse.
And at the center of it all is the golf course where Deacon Palmer taught Arnold to play golf. To the Palmer family and legions of avid golfers, it’s not just a golf course; It’s a public trust.
That’s a responsibility Jerry takes to heart.
“There’s always some talk about changes,” Jerry says. “At about 6,500 yards from the championship tees, it’s not a long course and it’s very, very tight. But that’s the way it was when our father taught Arnold how to play golf and that’s why people from all over the world want to play here.”
As general manager, Jerry Palmer is in charge of the entire operation, including four recently renovated guest houses available for out–of–town visitors. The club is certainly not some Palmer vanity project. “He expects the club to pull its own weight,” Jerry says.
“There’s not much I don’t do around here without thinking of what my dad would say”
The looming shadow of another legend, career–long green superintendent Deacon Palmer, lends additional gravity to that mission, he says. “Yeah, there’s not much I don’t do around here without thinking of what my dad would say. Pap grew up in the Great Depression and didn’t like to spend a lot of money. There are some things we do here that I think he’d cringe at, but he was a smart man. He knew people were coming here to experience Latrobe, the club he built and the one Arnie grew up on. He’d understand we need to make it nice.”
The shepherding vision of another loving memory, the late Winnie Palmer’s, helps assure attention to posh detail does not slip, Jerry says. “She was really a teacher to me. So many of the refinements we’ve done here over the years were done because of her great vision.”
The result is a cozy club in a small town that offers Jerry Palmer everything he’s ever needed. He grew up on the same piece of property and—except for being in Japan and France with the U.S. Air Force from 1962–66 and at Penn State University from 1975–1976—it’s always been home.
It’s where he was born, where he, a single father, raised his children, Deacon, 32, now an investment specialist with UBS who’ll wed Beth Meehan in New York this September, and Amanda Palmer Hinrichs, 30, whose recently launched Amanda Palmer Golfwear line of women’s clothing is being marketed around the country. And it’s where he always returns.
Makes it sound like a perfectly idyllic life, doesn’t it?
“Yes, I’m really a very lucky man,” he concedes. “Sure, I wish my golf game was better. My brother’s made a lifelong project out of me, but I always tell people the Palmers already have one fine golfer in the family. I enjoy being out there, but the game’s frustrating.”
That puts him squarely in the majority, but enough about all that. What about those perks?
“Well, I enjoy going to Bay Hill. Not necessarily when the tournament’s on, but when I can play golf there and spend time at the club. It’s a wonderful place.”
It was there that he spent a sun–kissed day following his brother and celebrity pro–am partner Celine Dion around the course. During the gala dinner that followed, the diva strolled through the packed dining room with a warm smile of recognition on her face and gracefully slid her slight frame onto a chair—at the wrong table right next to Jerry.
“I had to tell her, ‘Oh, you’re supposed to sit up there with my brother.’ He was up there waving her over with a big smile on his face. She thought I was him.”
He knew Bob and Dolores Hope and is good friends with Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and Secretary of Homeland Defense. He’s met and golfed with hosts of celebrities and athletes, particularly five–time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers players and coaches who make their summer camp in Latrobe at nearby Saint Vincent College and choose his club for off–field recreation.
He enjoyed a splendid day at Cypress Point when the Pacific fogs were rolling in so magnificently that he asked his caddie only half–kiddingly if he hadn’t truly died and gone to heaven. “It was one of my greatest golf memories,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and with the morning fog settling around the course, it did look like we were strolling through the clouds of heaven.” Incidentally, his older brother asked him, hey, how’d you get onto Cypress? The invitation was proffered through a well–connected greenskeeper friend of his.
His greatest golf trip, he says, was in 2006 when Deacon and and his in–laws–to–be played the great courses of the Scottish Isles. For him, the most poignant memory of that wonderful week happened, not on the course, but in the clubhouse at St. Andrews.
“We were invited into the clubhouse at the Royal & Ancient and the first thing I saw was a locker with the name ‘Arnold Palmer,’ on it. It gave me chills.”
Yes, being the brother of Arnold Palmer certainly opens some doors. Including grand ones in big white houses.
“That might have been the biggest thrill,” he says. “It was in 2004 when President Bush presented my brother with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Our hosts really made us feel right at home. We were able to look around and really soak up the history.”
The reverent look on his face is matched only when recollecting a much more humble setting with a man much of the world calls the King. But to him it’s still the boy he’s known since he first opened his eyes and looked out at big new world from the cradling arms of the loving mother they shared.
Better than any king, it’s his brother Arnold.
“To me the best times will always be standing on the practice range at Latrobe Country Club while he’s hitting balls”
“To me the best times will always be standing on the practice range at Latrobe Country Club while he’s hitting balls,” he says. “Usually, it’s just the two of us. Sometimes we don’t say much. But sometimes we talk about all the changes we’ve seen on that little piece of ground, the people we’ve known and the places we’ve been. To be there with my brother, Arnold Palmer, and know how fulfilling our lives have been and how we’re still happiest right there where we started, is very special.”
He knows no burdens.
Burdens are what weigh down those who choose to stand in the shadows, in the dark places never tread upon by those who gracefully allow themselves to simply bask in the glow.