Mister Palmer's Neighborhood
The hands are large and unusually strong, with the leathery feel of a workingman's hands. With hands like that a fellow could be a smith in a steel mill, which might have been the fate of Arnold Daniel Palmer had he not trained his fingers into the Vardon grip at an early age and swung himself into the history of golf. The hands were resting on the controls of the golfer's jet as he descended through the rain clouds to the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There was a time, thirty or so years ago, when Palmer was the only professional golfer successful enough to afford a private airplane, dispensing with those wearisome road trips between tour events. Now there is so much money in the game that practically every tour player flies to work. Still, few own their planes. Even Tiger Woods leases. Palmer owned this $16 million Cessna Citation X and, at the age of seventy-two, he was the pilot.
When he made contact with the control tower, it was the slow, sonorous voice of a thousand television commercials -- for Pennzoil and myriad other products -- an instantly recognizable and engaging, though slightly too loud voice, for Palmer is a little deaf. The tower welcomed him home and gave N1AP permission to land; he lifted the flaps and the jet came roaring in over the rooftops of this gray steel town southeast of Pittsburgh. It is not the prettiest town in America. In truth, Latrobe has a tired look. Its vitality has been seeping away since the 1970s, when the steel industry went into recession, and the population has dwindled to less than nine thousand. But Latrobe still has its pride. Rolling Rock beer is brewed here. And, of course, Latrobe has Arnold Palmer, or one might say that Arnold Palmer has Latrobe, for he owns great swaths of the place and much of the rest is named in his honor.
Each spring, when he returns after wintering in Florida and California, where he also has homes, Palmer collects a new Cadillac from the parking lot of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. It is left there for him by Arnold Palmer Motors, the local General Motors dealership. In late April 2002, he picked up a Cadillac Escalade and drove down Arnold Palmer Drive into Youngstown, the neighborhood he grew up in, and where he is very much a king of all he surveys. Many of the houses along the road are owned by Palmer or members of his family, and much of the surrounding land is his, including the wooded hillside in the distance, land that Arnold and his late wife, Winnie, acquired so developers could not spoil the countryside. Since Winnie's death from cancer in 1999, Palmer has also established the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve at the edge of town, a fond tribute to a beloved spouse. They were a famously close and happy couple, though some friends were taken aback when he started dating again soon after her death, keeping company now with a well-preserved woman in her early sixties by the name of Kathleen Gawthorp, who looks more than a little like Winnie did: petite and pretty and brunette. Arnie always had been popular with women.
Soon the fairways of Latrobe Country Club came into view, the golf course where Arnold's father worked as greenskeeper and club professional. Arnie owned the club now, and his kid brother, Jerry, managed it. Turning left opposite the entrance, Palmer powered the Escalade up a steep, tree-lined road to a parking area in front of a low, whitepainted building. These were the stables where his daughters, Amy and Peggy, used to keep ponies. Now that the girls are grown, with children of their own, Palmer has had the stables converted into offices. . .