Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania is the golf course Arnold Palmer’s father Deacon built, it is where Palmer grew up and it remained home base throughout his life. We were delving into the club’s storied history when we discovered a special gift Palmer received on his 80th birthday. Robin Barwick reports
During the latter years of Arnold Palmer’s life, his regular game at Latrobe Country Club was with three guys; Jim Bryan, Brian Miller and Marty Newingham.
“As Arnold got older, he liked to go back and talk about the old days more and more,” starts Brian Miller in an interview with Kingdom. “I had really the honor and privilege to play a lot of golf with him over recent years—the three of us would play with him a lot—and over time Arnold told us things about how the golf course had changed over the years, but it was hard to picture what he was explaining without something like aerial pictures.”
And so a secret mission was born. Brian runs an engineering firm in Latrobe, through which he is familiar with aerial photographs of the area—taken by one government department or another over the decades—and he went about obtaining aerial photographs of Latrobe Country Club from different years. Brian sourced five aerial shots of the club, taken in 1939, 1955, 1962, 1994 and 2006.
He explains: “A few years ago I downloaded the picture from 1939—from when Arnold was only 10 years old—and then out on the golf course I would ask him questions about the old days, but without telling him about the photos because I always had it in mind that we could present them to him as a gift. We kept the project secret for years.
“So the whole thing evolved over time and we kind of put together the different pieces of the puzzle. It was hard to pin down some of the details because even Arnold forgot some of it. If you think about it, 60 years on, it wasn’t easy for Arnold to think back to specifically how the course was in say, 1955.”
Brian’s firm worked on the five pictures to ensure they were all coordinated to the same size and scale (one inch to 300 feet) and covered exactly the same ground. Then the routing of Latrobe’s golf course was drawn onto each photograph and hole yardages were calculated.
“You could take a ruler and measure the distance from tee to green and work out how long each hole is,” he says. “The idea was to recreate the old scorecards because today they are gone. There are no scorecards from 1939 anywhere as far as we know, but I am pretty confidant we now have the scorecard right for back then.”
By September 2009—Palmer’s 80th birthday—the series of five photographs and scorecards were complete.
“We printed them out at 11 by 17 inches, a pretty good size and on glossy photographic paper, and put them in a leather-bound portfolio,” says Brian. “On Arnold’s 80th birthday we were sitting in the Grill Room with him, drinking a vodka as we usually did, and gave him the portfolio.
“He loved it. He didn’t say a word for a few minutes as he looked through the photographs. I’ll never forget it, Arnold looked me right in the eye and grabbed my hand—you know, I get a little choked up thinking about it—and he said, ‘Brian, I really appreciate this. Thank you so much.’”
It was a gift Palmer cherished for the rest of his life; pictures that traced the history of his home, the golf course his father built, the course on which Palmer learned the game. In the photographs is the house in which Palmer grew up—which in 1939 was up by the sixth tee—and the family home he later built in the woods, which can be seen clearly in the 2006 photograph, across the street from the club and near the grounds of Latrobe High School.
Ultimately, Palmer’s ashes were scattered on a hillside behind the ninth green.
The photographs also show how the golf course grew in size, from a comparatively sparse nine-hole proposition in 1939, in the early days of Latrobe Country Club—founded in 1920—to the mature, 18-hole treasure it is today.
“If you look back to 1939 the course is almost void of trees,” adds Brian. “But if you compare that to the latest photo, look at all the trees, which is what Latrobe Country Club is known for. When people come to Latrobe for the first time they are in the trees all day long. Deke planted all those trees and I think that’s why Arnold did not like to cut trees down, because they reminded him of his dad. He would see a tree and he’d remember when his dad planted it.”
In his great book, A Golfer’s Life, Palmer wrote how buying Latrobe Country Club—which he did in 1971—was “one of the smartest moves I ever made. It enabled me to preserve a facility I care deeply about and to give something back to the people of Latrobe”.
And that worked both ways. As the birthday present of aerial photos perfectly illustrates, the people of Latrobe care deeply about Arnold Palmer.
Special thanks for their help with this feature to Doc Giffin, Arnold Palmer’s personal assistant from 1966; Matthew Pellis, head professional at Latrobe Country Club; and Brian Miller.