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Memory of an icon // The King and I

By |  September 26, 2016 0 Comments

Photo by Aidan Bradley

I first met Arnold Palmer during a practice round at the Masters in the early 1980s. I attended the event with Jimmy Ellison, who was the superintendent at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club. Jim and I knew each other from our work with the Central Florida GCSA. We stayed that week at a house in Augusta that had been rented by the Loft Seed Co. We caught up with Palmer during a practice round, and Jimmy naturally touched base with him and introduced me.

It would be six or seven years later, after I had been at Disney for 14 years, that Jimmy asked if I would be interested in becoming superintendent of the Isleworth Country Club, which was one of a dozen courses in Florida experimenting with bentgrass greens. This was a phenomenon begun in the late 1980s by Jack Nicklaus at his Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla.

At that time, I had almost a decade and a half of service at Disney with decent retirement benefits at stake, but the chance to work with Palmer was too strong to ignore, so Jimmy arranged an interview. I had taken all those GCSAA-offered professionalism courses on social etiquette, resumes and interviews. I headed to the local men’s store to get a new navy-blue Hart Shaffner & Marx blazer for my interview with the King.

We all knew early on that Palmer was the son of a superintendent, which endeared him to many of us in the business. I did a background search online and discovered that, like myself, he had served in the U.S. Coast Guard, so we also shared that common ground.

On the appointed day, all decked out with my new coat and tie, I met Jimmy outside of Palmer’s office. We went in and proceeded with the interview. When the interview was over, I made my exit and headed out to the car. I thought, “Hey, that went pretty well! He’s just as warm and friendly as they say!” As I took off the blazer and put it on the clothes hanger, my heart stopped.

Sewn on the inside of the left sleeve was one of those cloth labels with the maker’s name and logo, and not just any logo. A Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear logo. I got the job and never knew if anyone had noticed the label.

That’s why I ended up learning how to grow bentgrass in Central Florida until 1991, when the developer put the property up for sale and my job came to an end. As I rode the course during my last few days at Isleworth, Palmer came out from his home along the 1st hole, flagged me down and invited me into his house. He apologized for the turn of events and said he’d help me anyway he could.

Fortunately, I was able to return to Disney in 1991, completed my 20 years of service and took early retirement from the mouse in 1997 to work for the Florida GCSA.

After that, every time I saw Arnold Palmer at the Bay Hill Invitational events or later during the NBC Father/Son Challenge events, he would always come over to the ropes to say hi, shake hands and ask how I was doing.

My “forever” moment with Arnold Palmer was the day when he was playing Isleworth with a couple of guests, and he took me aside and said of the course conditions, “This is way I always hoped it could be!”

Long live the King!

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