Growing up with Arnold Palmer

Many know Palmer as the King, a legend, one of the greatest of all time. Dennis P. McIlnay was proud to call him a neighbor. Here, a privileged view of history from the current professor, former caddie and fellow Latrobe native.

His first name was Milfred but most people called him “Deke,” short for Deacon, a deferential nickname given by members of Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania where he was superintendent and professional from 1921 to his death in 1976.

Other people might have called him Deke, but I always called him a respectful Mr. Palmer. Milfred Palmer was the father of Arnold Palmer. For me, Arnold was the best golfer in the world in the 1960s. He won seven majors in the space of seven years and in 1960, Sports Illustrated named Arnold “Sportsman of the Year”. The Associated Press honored him as “Athlete of the Decade.”

Arnold and his first wife, Winnie, raised their daughters, Peg and Amy, in a home across the road from Latrobe Country Club’s third hole. To my family, who lived nearby, he was never “Arn,” “Arnie,” or “A.P.”, as others called him, but always Arnold. When he returned from a tournament, he sometimes flew so low over our house that my brother, Tom, and sister, Patty, and I could see the letters, AP, on the sides of his plane. We never said, “Arnold’s returned from a tournament,” but just, “Arnold’s home.”

Palmer would fly so low over the McIlnay’s home the kids could see the letters “AP” on the side of the plane

When he was home, he often practiced all day in quiet corners of the golf course or on holes that required specific shots such as drives that fade or draw. Before a U.S. Open in the mid–1960s, I watched him hit countless drives on the seventh hole, a tight par four that rewards a fade between tall oaks lining both sides of the fairway.

Despite my mother’s repeated warnings to “stay offa Deke’s golf course,” I frequently sneaked on to watch Arnold practice. If he saw me, he never let on or chased me away, accustomed as he must have been to always being watched. He started so early in the morning that the dew soaked my sneakers, and in the evening when the dew and I returned, he would still be there.

That was in the 1960s when I was in high school and college. During those summers, I worked for Deke as a caddie, “shag boy,” and member of his grounds crew, led by the expert greenskeeper Bill Adams. I grew up next to the eleventh hole at Latrobe Country Club, a par four that paralleled one side of my family’s long sliver of a backyard, with the practice range, added after the back nine was built in the early 1960s, bordering the other side of our yard. From the tee at the end of the range, members routinely sliced the club’s yellow practice balls into our yard. My parents wouldn’t let my brother, sister, or me keep them, despite our plebeian plea that possession was nine-tenths of the law. We three scruffians imagined trading the balls for membership in the club. Not that we would have known what to have done with such an asset; back then, we didn’t play golf, so we threw the balls back into the “driving range,” as we called it.

My first job was as a skinny 13-year-old caddie at Latrobe Country Club, barely able to carry a so-called “double,” two bags for eighteen holes. The pay: $4.50 per bag to “show up, keep up, and shut up,” as Deke demanded. Thankfully, I became the favorite caddie of several member couples, relieving me of the boredom and some (but not all) the bad habits of the caddie yard.

I often caddied for Deke, who sometimes invited couples to join him for a round, especially new members who were beginners at golf. Once, a young husband and wife, their caddie, and I waited for Deke on the first tee, a few steps from the pro shop. The lady in the twosome, surmising that I was Deke’s caddie, worked her way over to me and asked, “Does Deacon allow ‘gimmies’”? referring to short putts that players are likely to make.

“Yes,” I said. “Mr. Palmer gives a lot of ‘gimmies.’”

“Oh, thank God,” she sighed.

And Deke did give “gimmies.” He once told a member to pick up a three-footer. “We let Arnold worry about those,” he said.

Deacon Palmer on his tractor at Latrobe Country Club

One of Deke’s legs was shorter than his other one from infantile paralysis, causing him to limp noticeably. He was short, buttoned his golf shirts all the way up, and wore freshly polished white spikeless golf shoes. Deke wore spikeless golf shoes before such shoes became popular, and the sole of one of his shoes was built up to compensate for his handicap. His thin hair was as white as his shoes, and he had the deepest tan I have ever seen.

At 7 a.m. every day, Deke met the grounds crew at a small, round practice green near the maintenance shed and the third hole. Each worker cut a stripe on the green with his narrow, self-propelled, walk-behind mower. Deke then bent over each mower with a screwdriver and set the mower to avoid cutting the grass too short, called “scalping,” or too long, causing the greens to be “slow.” He and his family lived right on the golf course in a gray frame house. For decades in the golf season, Deke adjusted the mowers every morning, and I can still see his white hair and tanned head as he knelt over my mower.

Near the end of the summer each year, Latrobe Country Club held a golf championship for the caddies. During the golf season, caddies could play at the club on Monday mornings, and I had begun playing the game with a few clubs best described as orphans. To play in the championship, a caddie had to ask a member to be his partner, and the caddie carried the member’s clubs (and played with the member’s clubs, too). I worked up the nerve to ask Deke to be my partner, and he agreed. On the first tee, Deke noticed that I had put my driver and putter in his beautiful leather bag, along with his clubs, thus avoiding the awkward (and annoying) need to pass those frequently used clubs between players. “Somebody’s thinking,” he said. That day, I won the caddie championship with a blistering 81, my sole career victory. When Deke gave me the winner’s cup at the dinner that evening, he stared at me for more than a few seconds, as was his habit, and said, “Nice going, boy.” (Deke called every caddie “boy.”) Those three words meant a great deal to me, coming as they did from Arnold Palmer’s father.

On a Friday evening, I caddied nine holes for a member who was trying a new set of Wilson “Sam Snead Signature” clubs. When we finished the ninth hole, I asked the member if I should put the clubs in the storage room behind the pro shop.

Arnold Palmer pauses during practice at Latrobe

“No,” he said. “I can’t hit them. Ask Deke to sell them.”

When I told this to Deke, he asked, “You want ‘em? Hundred bucks.”

The next day, I paid Deke for my first matched set of clubs, which I used for the next 20 years.

On another evening, I was alone in the caddie yard when Deke appeared in the door between the yard and his pro shop. “Arnold wants to hit some balls,” he said. “Down by the shed.” Deke was too gruff for a warmer like, “Would you like to shag some balls?” (I once overheard a testy exchange between him and a member of Latrobe Country Club who thought that Arnold’s businesses were hurting his golf. Deke became irritated and said, “If you had what he has. Hell, if I had what he has.”)

Behind Deke in the door stood Arnold Palmer, not three feet from me. I had never been that close to him. He was shorter than he looked on television, and his fingers and forearms were thick and tanned.

“See you down there,” he said over Deke’s shoulder, referring to the fifth tee down the hill from the clubhouse.

I ran to the tee and waited as Arnold parked his car by the maintenance shed. From the trunk, which was full of loose golf balls, I lifted his clubs (surprisingly banged up) and a shag bag, about the size of an oversized bowling bag. I filled the bag with balls and dumped some on the tee.

“Some seven irons,” Arnold said, pointing to the nearby third fairway.

I grabbed the shag bag and ran into the fairway about a hundred yards, then my seven iron distance. When I turned around, Arnold waved me further out with a friendly shake of his head. At about 150 yards, I turned around again, and Arnold lifted his hand to say, “Far enough.”
Today, most golfers practice at commercial driving ranges or practice areas at golf clubs. They hit shot after shot, and after a while the ground is covered with balls. Then, a worker in a golf cart or similar vehicle (caged to protect the driver) pulls a wheeled device that rolls over the balls, grabs them, and drops them into an attached bin. In the early 1960s, Latrobe Country Club had no practice range, so members practiced in isolated parts of the course, hitting balls to “shag boys” who served as targets and chased down each ball, running back to their spots to drop the balls in shag bags. Shagging balls for average golfers is exhausting because they hit them all over the place (although the job is quite safe because most players don’t hit their shots anywhere near you).

Shagging balls for Arnold Palmer, though, was unlike any “shag job” I ever had. That evening, he hit a couple seven irons to warm up—with a much lower trajectory than I expected—right at the shag bag a few steps in front of me. Then, he moved down through his irons, hitting each shot with the same low, line-drive flight, so straight that I barely had to move to retrieve the balls. In fact, I caught most of them on their second bounces. As Arnold reached his long irons, I moved the shag bag further away and still hardly had to take a step left or right to catch the balls. I cupped my hands as I caught them, and they spun in my hands from the backspin as though I had trapped a bee.

In an hour, Arnold waved me in. “You don’t move around,” he said. “That’s good.”

“Thank you,” I said.

As I put his clubs and shag bag in the trunk, he handed me a $20 bill for an hour’s work. At the time, shagging balls at Latrobe Country Club paid $2 an hour.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Likewise,” he said.

That night after I walked home, my father asked where I had been.

“Shagging balls for Arnold,” I said, as though I was his exclusive shag boy.

“What’d you learn?” he asked.

“I learned I’ll never be that good,” I said and privately resolved to return to school that fall with newfound enthusiasm.

At the far end of Latrobe Country Club’s practice range stands an apple tree, 250 yards from the tee and across the kitchen window from my family’s home. Every couple weeks or so, a scattering of golf balls appeared among the apples under the tree. The first time my father saw the balls, he said, “I see Arnold’s home,” explaining that no one else at the club could have hit them that far—or that straight.

To this day, every time I see apples under an apple tree, I think of Arnold and Milfred Palmer.

A couple of years ago, after my mother and father died, Arnold Palmer bought our home. The day my brother, sister, and I cleaned out the house, I stood at the kitchen window for the last time and looked at the apple tree at the end of the range. There were no balls under the tree, only apples. Arnold wasn’t home.

Dr. Dennis P. McIlnay is professor emeritus of management at Saint Francis University and the author of two books on foundation philanthropy and three books about the Keystone State: Juniata, River of Sorrows; The Wreck of the Red Arrow; and The Horseshoe Curve.

ApplesArnold Palmer
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