ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer bought Bay Hill Club & Lodge because he loved the golf course and wanted it for his own, not having any idea where it all would lead.
Now his name adorns a PGA Tour event that has been a staple of the Florida Swing for 35 years. It’s also carried by two hospitals that specialize in children – one named after his late wife, Winnie, and where more than 93,000 babies have been born since 2006.
Oh, and he’s having dinner with Kate Upton this week.
“Did you see this?” Palmer said, holding up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with Upton on the cover. “She’s coming here. Did you know that?”
He put it back on his desk, gave it one last look, and then grabbed a stack of papers to place over the magazine.
“I better cover this up,” he said.
He grinned. The man is simply timeless.
How a supermodel wound up at Bay Hill explains so much about the 83-year-old Palmer, who built his kingdom by being a man of the people.
The manager for Upton is Lisa Benson, whose father is from Punxsutawney and used to regularly play golf with Palmer at Latrobe Country Club. She was looking for a job at IMG, which, in addition to managing sports and entertainment, also represents top models. Her father talked to Palmer, who talked to IMG to arrange an interview. She got the job and years later connected with Upton.
Upton grew up in Melbourne on the central coast of Florida, and her parents were huge Palmer fans. Given the back story, Upton thought it would be a great idea to come to Bay Hill, meet with Palmer and see the work he is doing with the hospitals. She also plans to take part in a social media campaign involving the “Arnold Palmer” tea drink.
So in a roundabout way, a casual round of golf leads to dinner with a supermodel?
“That’s been a fun deal,” Palmer said when he finished telling the story.
There have been thousands of casual rounds like that for Palmer, whose passion for golf never dies. There have been more friends than he can count. There are probably more stories like this, all because he takes an interest in people.
“It’s easy,” Palmer said. “And I love it.”
Brad Faxon surely had Palmer in mind when he said years after a golf trip, “I wish we had more guys on tour who liked meeting people.”
Palmer is one of those guys. Always has been. And that’s why so many people want to meet the King.
A staff member came into the room and mentioned two men who were outside the office and wanted to say hello. One was Seth Jones, the editor of Golfdom magazine who recently interviewed Palmer for a project he was working on.
“Well, bring him in,” Palmer said, rising from behind his desk with a broadening smile. Dressed in slacks and a pink shirt, Palmer made sure the two men met everyone in the room and made small talk for a few minutes before closing with that powerful handshake and a smile. “Nice to see you guys,” he told them.
He sat back down at his desk and picked up a sheet of paper. It was a letter to David Frost, who won the Toshiba Classic on the Champions Tour the day before.
“Congratulations on your strong performance in the Toshiba Classic,” he said, reading the letter aloud. “He’s playing pretty good.”
He reached for a black pen and signed his name, as famous as any signature in sports.
The other letter on his desk was for Kevin Streelman, who won the Tampa Bay Championship for his first PGA Tour title in 153 tries. Palmer watched most of the back nine on television and was impressed with what he saw. He had this letter placed in Streelman’s locker downstairs.
Talk about a tradition like no other. For years, Palmer has written a note of congratulations to the winners on every tour every week.
Palmer looked down at his desk and found two index cards that had been marked up, and then started rattling off numbers. The 443 beds in the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies. The 13,000 babies born last year alone. The only high-level trauma center in central Florida dedicated to children. More than 3,500 employees and 450 doctors employed by both hospitals.
“That’s just a few of the things that we are pushing,” Palmer said. “It’s a big deal. We’d like to be the No. 1 children’s hospital in the world for children and women.”
He rapped the wooden desk for luck.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational starts this week with one of the strongest fields among PGA Tour events this year. Tiger Woods is the defending champion and a seven-time winner, with a chance to go back to No. 1 in the world with another victory. Brandt Snedeker is playing for the first time since his win at Pebble Beach, missing the next five weeks with a rib injury. Masters champion Bubba Watson will be there, too.
Palmer smiles at the mention of Watson’s shot out of the trees on the 10th hole at Augusta National last year to win a playoff.
“It was a great shot, but I don’t think it was spectacular,” Palmer said. “It was more natural for him to hit than anything in the world.”
Not many can appreciate the art of recovery quite like Palmer. It’s part of what made him so famous. He was willing to take on any shot, hitching up his pants and slashing away. It was never boring watching Palmer play golf.
“People enjoyed that,” he said. “That was one of the things that attracted them to what I did and how I played. I was reckless. I was in the trees. I was everywhere. But it was part of my life, the way I lived and the way I played.”
Could he have imagined any of this when he first showed up at Bay Hill in 1965 for an exhibition and fell in love with the place?
“Hell, I didn’t have anything in mind except getting a golf course and hitting balls,” he said with a laugh. “And it worked.”
An assistant came back into the office. Some Japanese photographers were hoping to take his picture. They were outside his door and when Palmer saw them, he rattled off his best Japanese greeting. His voice was animated. The words probably didn’t come out the right way. It didn’t matter. They all laughed together and Palmer wrapped his arms around one of them and gave her a big hug.
• Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press.