“Palmer’s guy”: Doc Giffin
Doc Giffin was the unfailingly efficient press secretary for the PGA Tour until Arnold Palmer came in for him. That was 50 years ago in 2016 and the two men worked together for the rest of Palmer’s life. At the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational, the media center was renamed the “Doc Giffin Media Center”. Marino Parascenzo, a sports writer on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more than three decades, pays tribute to “Palmer’s Guy”
Up north at Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania—and when he wasn’t working—Doc Giffin enjoyed nothing more than golf with the guys, just like his boss. Giffin couldn’t hit it out of Arnie’s shadow, but when it came to loving golf he was as tough as Palmer. The parallel was uncanny and so was their enduring link—employer-employee, friend-friend, or whatever. Last year made 50 years of this unique relationship.
“I almost feel like a brother to Arnold,” Giffin, 87—barely a year Palmer’s senior—would say. Back in time they were more alike than less. Neither was exactly born rich. Palmer grew up having to carry water for his mom to wash clothes and dishes. Doc Giffin was only six when his dad died, and he and his younger brother and mom had to move in with his grandfather, putting seven people into a two-bedroom apartment. It almost seems their paths were destined to meet.
On tour, Giffin was known as “Palmer’s guy”. This doesn’t mean gofer, handyman or such. You’d think that for a man in his position, after 50 years, Giffin would have had a corporate-speak title with some muscle to it, but his nameplate said “Assistant” until his retirement, which followed the loss of Palmer. “Assistant” doesn’t say much, but it says it all. Giffin was the keeper of the gate, media liaison, facilitator of things, arranger of dates, writer of speeches and letters—and on and on. He’s dealt with everyone: writers, broadcasters, paupers, pretenders, potentates and presidents, including Eisenhower, Clinton and George W. Bush to name three.
“Doc has done everything,” said Palmer. “He’d better not retire—I don’t know what I’d do!”
A pragmatist’s view comes from Alastair Johnston, the executive at agency giant IMG who handles Palmer and a man famous for not flitting off in flights of fancy.
“Remember,” starts Johnston, “that the media had embraced Arnold, but at the end of the day someone had to lead him to the media, to make the connection. Also remember that in writing and in speeches, it wasn’t what Arnold said, but how he said it. Doc never changed the content, never changed the message, but just tidied things up. And so Doc played an immense role in building the legend of Arnold Palmer.”
It began in 1962 when an affable New England golf guy named Jim Gaquin got promoted and was looking for someone to succeed him as the press secretary of the PGA Tour. It was a vital post for a tour that was growing wildly in popularity with the volcanic success of Palmer.
In addition to doing the procedural stuff in running the press tent, the press secretary had to be agile enough to deal with a demanding press corps on one hand and with prima donna golfers on the other. Gaquin knew all the golf writers of the day.
The one who really impressed him was one he rarely saw, the backup writer of the Pittsburgh Press: Donald W. Giffin (or “Doc” as everyone called him).
But Giffin, Pittsburgh-area native, was then 33 and nine years into a newspaper sports-writing career he loved and had no intention of leaving. Fate thrust him into a scary juncture at a most awkward time. He was comfortable and happy, but the opportunity was attractive.
Giffin had come to that self-defeating fork in the road. Yogi Berra, baseball’s resident philosopher, was no help. “When you come to a fork in the road,” Berra counseled, “take it.” Robert Frost wasn’t much better to a literate guy, not even in iambic tetrameter. Frost took the road less traveled by and never looked back. Giffin was torn. Then came some pithy advice from a good friend and colleague, blustery Bob Drum, the golf writer on the Pittsburgh Press whose questions Palmer had grown up answering:
“Doctor,” Drum offered, “if you don’t take that job I’ll never speak to you again.”
Gaquin ticked off Giffin’s qualifications. “Doc was bright, industrious, likable—just such a competent guy,” Gaquin said. “I was the pioneer on the job, and Doc did a better job than I did. He did a spectacular job.”
But he did it quietly. There was no fanfare about Doc—and there still isn’t. Gaquin had recognized Doc’s ability despite barely knowing him, but was surprised that Palmer had done the same.
“They were in two different worlds,” Gaquin said. “Arnie was a superstar and Doc ran the press tent. I was surprised that Arnie, or any player, would recognize Doc’s talent. The only time he saw Doc was when he came to the press tent.”
Doc spent five years on the tour job, and then Palmer came with the big question in 1966.
Palmer needed help. He was a victim of his success. He was being swamped in a sea of requests, demands and whatnot. He needed someone to handle this tsunami of attention and he asked Doc.
If Doc wasn’t the first to hold such a post, he was the first to have the depth and breadth of responsibility—and the authority—that Palmer bestowed upon him. Think of the simplest thing: autographs. The request was simple, the traffic was not. It’s not true that people wanted Palmer to autograph their firstborn. Some did, however, want him to autograph them. He signed people and everything else. He also signed a Cadillac and a tractor, the twin of the famous Pennzoil tractor.
Giffin is an accomplished writer. Even so, in the matter of his job description he would probably come up with a blank sheet of paper. “It’s always been: when something comes up, deal with it,” Giffin said.
Palmer’s office, sitting up in the trees across the road from Latrobe Country Club, was a tranquil place that hummed quietly, where everything clearly worked in harmony. It was a reflection of Giffin as much as anything. He was a unifier and a director. The office was as stable as Gibraltar. Apart from Giffin’s 50 years, others had been there from 20-plus to 30-plus years.
Bob Demangone, a vice president and 29 years at Arnold Palmer Enterprises, was based at the Latrobe headquarters.
“Doc was my go-to guy,” Demangone says. “He’s always been the person I go to for advice. Working with him has been a priceless experience.”
Cori Britt, a vice president based at Bay Hill, is a 30-year man who started as a kid, emptying wastebaskets and cutting grass, joining the staff after graduating from St. Vincent College, and he credits Giffin for practically everything.
“I spent a lot of time shadowing Doc,” Britt said. “I pulled up a chair and sat beside him, and I learned how to do what I had to, especially in writing. He’s such a good writer and he was so patient. His job is quite a balancing act—making Mr. Palmer accessible but also protecting him.”
For more than 50 years, Doc Giffin devoted his career to Arnold Palmer’s life and career. It’s been the grandest irony: in working for a legend, Doc Giffin became one himself.