By ALEX PODLOGAR
You would hear the stories. “He writes everyone back. You’ll get a letter.”
But you don’t believe it. Not at all. Why would Arnold Palmer write a return letter to me?
And that was a prevailing thought even in the good times. It’s no secret over the last few years that Palmer was in declining health. And at the time of my letter, Palmer was 86 years old.
But it’s also why I rushed to write the letter.
The letter accompanied a large framed photograph of Arnold Palmer and his father, Deacon. As part of a project at Pinehurst, I found the photo – a beautiful black and white image of a youthful Arnold standing with his father near the 9th tee of Pinehurst No. 2. The timestamp from the Tufts Archives marked the photo from 1954, making Arnold around 25 years old.
It’s a pure golf image. They stand together, father and son in sweaters over collared shirts, with Deacon looking off and to the left and Arnold staring straight at the camera. Both hold golf clubs. Arnold isn’t smiling, but he isn’t necessarily not smiling, either. It appears, if you gaze at the image long enough, that he may simply be mere moments from breaking into the smile that greeted so many a nervous fan or sportswriter.
In fact, there is another image, near the same spot on the same day, where Palmer and his father are both grinning, Arnold in mid-strut.
When Pinehurst embarked on a year-long project to restore the vintage photos hanging in the historic clubhouse in 2015, I found the father and son photo. It had not been framed and hung in the clubhouse before, but in an instant, I knew it needed to have its home there. It should live in Pinehurst’s clubhouse forever, and it should be next to the famed image of Harvie Ward and Arnold from the 1948 North & South Amateur.
But it was an image I believed Palmer should have as well. Deacon visited Pinehurst regularly in the 1930s and 1940s with a group of golf buddies from their home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and their hotel of choice was the Manor Inn. Arnold came on occasion and then attended Wake Forest College in the late 1940s when it was located in the town of Wake Forest, just north of Raleigh. His love of Pinehurst never wavered.
Standing in as a representative of Pinehurst, I sent a copy of the image, enlarged and framed beautifully by Tony Hill, to Palmer. In the letter with it, I wrote:
There were one or two photos, though, that we replaced, and that includes the one we present to you today. In my research at the Archives, I came across this photo of you and your father at the ninth hole of Pinehurst No. 2. It immediately became the highlight of our project, and we’ve positioned it in the hallway adjacent to a vintage photo of you and Harvie Ward at the 1948 North & South Amateur.
Our project has been well received, but no photo has drawn more interest from our guests than this one. Nearly every day, we are fortunate to witness the reactions of our guests to this photo. These moments are what make Pinehurst so special.
Thank you, Mr. Palmer, from all of us at Pinehurst, for your lifelong affection for our home. Few people have meant more to Pinehurst in our storied history than yourself, and your father. It is a story we are blessed to tell, and one we will continue to tell for decades to come.
To say I didn’t hope for a response would be unfaithful. But I didn’t expect one. Those are two very different things, and Mr. Palmer had been ill.
But, dated April 28, 2016, and postmarked May 2 – less than two weeks after I had sent my letter and his photo – came the response.
What great memories that photograph of my father and me at Pinehurst brings to me.
We had some wonderful times playing golf and just enjoying life on the trips we made to Pinehurst with a number of Pap’s friends from Latrobe.
Of course, I have been back to Pinehurst countless times since those early days and have many treasured memories of those visits.
I’m pleased to know that the framed photograph is hanging in a prominent place in the clubhouse and thank you very much for sending me the framed copy. It will find a prominent place here in Latrobe.
Whether Palmer himself dictated, typed or even thought about that response is of no concern to me. He signed it, and while the signature he crafted for so many years to be legible for his legions is written with a shaky hand, it only means that much more.
Pinehurst will never be the same without Arnold Palmer.
Thank God for memories – and photography.