Arnie's Air Force
Taking to the skies as Arnold Palmer sets a new course
September 25, 2016
By Chris Smith, The Florida Times-Union
- September 25, 2016
- Arnold Palmer, seen here in 1991, spent time around Jacksonville, Florida, that year working on area courses. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Florida Times-Union on Feb. 24, 1991
Florida Times-Union golf writer Chris Smith recently undertook what some might consider a dream project. The job: Spend a couple of days watching the workings of Ponte Vedra-based Arnold Palmer Course design. The result: A multi-state excursion with Arnie at the throttle.
No doubt as to whose Cessna jet was awaiting passengers outside the terminal at Craig Field.
The umbrella decal was as good as Arnold Palmer’s own signature.
Palmer was just returning with longtime friend Doc Coppedge from a tour of nearby Mill Cove Golf Course, the second local course Palmer Course Design has done for Coppedge. It previously overhauled Hidden Hills Country Club.
Accompanying Palmer and Coppedge were Ed Seay, executive vice president of his Ponte Vedra-based design company, and Bob Holzman, vice president of Palmer’s Golf Management Company in Orlando.
Exchanging a few jokes and farewells with Coppedge, they boarded. Palmer and his pilot. Holzman and Seay … and me.
Well, Ed did offer a first-hand look at golf course design.
And there’s only so much to learn about design and construction during an office discussion. We’d already looked at topography maps, course layouts, reviewed how a course ties into a proposed development, etc.
So Seay suggested a field trip.
The week before, I’d accompanied his senior architects, Erik Larsen and Harrison Minchew, on a nuts-and-bolts excursion to several ongoing projects in the Midwest: North Port at Lake Ozark, Mo., Geneva National at Lake Geneva, Wis., and Dakota Dunes outside Sioux City, Iowa.
But to travel with Palmer and Seay – on Palmer’s jet, no less – would offer the ultimate look: site visit, receptions and dinner, elbow-rubbing with financial backers and eager politicians.
Arnold Palmer at his best.
For this, we would return to North Port, a 1,500-acre development sprawling from the beautiful shoreline of the Lake of the Ozarks to the Osage River.
A tour of the course would be followed by an informal reception at the lake. We then would fly to St. Louis for a formal reception with potential investors at Bellerive Country Club, followed by dinner. The following morning, we’d fly back to Orlando, where Palmer and Seay would participate in the Florida Golf Council Summit at Grand Cypress.
But that was another matter.
I figured the primary leg of the trip not only would show the polished side to the business, but also satisfy a curiosity about how much Palmer actually involves himself with a project.
After all, one hardly envisions him sitting at a drafting table, immersed in the actual design. That’s why he has Seay, Larsen and Minchew.
Then again, how much more does he provide than a signature and ceremonial appearances? Not to question his knowledge or dedication. But he is a busy man.
I’d asked Seay about it, and he said Palmer has familiarized himself with the business more and more over the year. Palmer was playing full-time when Seay first joined him in 1971 and was, for all intents, a company figurehead. But Seay said Palmer actually has begun to dabble with hole design and even has learned proper printing technique for drafting.
“He gets stronger with each project and has more awareness of each step,” Seay said. “With as much as he’s got going on, he surprises people how involved he is.”
Larsen discovered early in his own association that Palmer has design opinion. They were on a site visit where on one hole that crossed a stream, Palmer suggested building a dam to create a pond.
Larsen preferred the stream. So he told Palmer, “I don’t like your dam idea.”
Arnie glared at him. Seay quickly intervened, explaining what Larsen meant.
One thing Palmer was involved with from the outset of the trip was flying. He went directly to the cockpit to handle the takeoff from Craig Field. A noted flying buff, Palmer usually is at the controls of his jet.
But shortly after takeoff, Palmer returned to the cabin to discuss the North Port project with Seay.
As he reviewed the plans, Palmer raised several questions, asking the status on certain features they’d obviously discussed before. This was the first indication of familiarity with the course and a suggestion that those duplicate plans Seay sends of every project to Palmer’s offices in Latrobe, Pa., and Orlando aren’t simply ignored.
Palmer expressed concern over the playability of several holes, bringing to mind something else Larsen had said during the previous trip.
Referring to company philosophy, Larsen said, “The design philosophy that Arnold and Ed have set up is paramount. A course has to be fun to play, but still challenging for everyone. That’s more of Arnold’s input, something that satisfies him. He prefers more subtle grade work.”
Palmer and Seay discussed North Port for 20 minutes or so, then Palmer returned to the cockpit.
Seay then explained Palmer’s personal involvement varies from job to job. The primary lure is, of course, his name. But each client puts more emphasis on a certain aspect of Palmer’s role.
“Sometimes people place a lot more emphasis seeing Arnold in the dirt,” Seay said. “Others are more concerned with the receptions and press conferences. We know they want to use his visits as a marketing too.
“He has been to projects as few as three times and as many as 10. We can assure that he will be there at the announcement, the ground-breaking and then play the course when it opens.”
Upon our arrival at a small air strip in the middle of a state park, we were transported to a beautiful old ledge overlooking the lake, the temporary offices for North Port. We then drove to the course.
It had been raining and the rough grading had become coated in mud.
After viewing the practice areas, we trudged toward the first hole. Problem No. 1.
To handle the flow of a tiny stream beneath the fairway, four massive metal pipes had been installed. They were big enough to handle the St. Johns River. Translated, it was a $60,000 waste of pipe.
Palmer walked over for a closer look. “Amazing,” he finally said. “You look at that creek and those pipes … you figure it out.”
Moving along, it became apparent Bob Carron, representing the investors, had a unique rapport with Palmer. They talked, joked, kidded one another.
Carron later explained that initially he had difficulty dealing with Palmer.
“Finally,” he said, “I called and asked if I could talk with him. I told him, ‘I can’t deal with you as an idol.’ He invited me to Latrobe and when I got there, we talked it out.
“I’m told now that I get more out of Arnold than other clients do. I say it’s because I’m stupid enough to ask.”
Continuing around the course, Palmer and Seay discussed a variety of points with the developers and several possible adjustments. But for the most part, they were extremely pleased with what they say.
We finally arrived at the 18th green. A podium and several charis had been arranged for a press conference.
Soon several vehicles pulled up, including a bus full of reporters and another carrying several Missouri senators, eager for a picture-taking session with Palmer and an opportunity to give repetitive speeches praising him.
Afterward, we returned to North Port for an information reception. Then we headed back to the airport.
We proceeded on to St. Louis, arriving, appropriately, as Million Air terminal.
The reception and dinner were at Bellerive Country Club, site of next year’s PGA Championship. The guest list included judges, attorneys, doctors, athletes, including Palmer’s longtime friend, former St. Louis Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst.
Palmer was presented a shirt with the ’92 PGA logo and with it, the voiced hope he might return to the one major championship he has never won. He made no promises.
The following day began at 5 a.m. We flew to Orlando, arriving at the Palmer hangar, which might be described as strikingly clean. The pained concrete floor actually shined. Inside was his Cadillac.
Palmer and Seay got in the front, Holzman and I in the back. We headed out toward Grand Cypress. Palmer immediately dialed his wife, Winnie, on his car phone. “Gonna see the Guv; gotta meet the Guv,” he droned, referring to Bob Martinez, who would present yet another proclamation to Palmer and the Summit.
Palmer’s phone was planted against his left ear. Seay made a call on his own phone, planting it against his right ear. Holzman had his car phone in his lap.
I held a note pad.
By late afternoon, Seay and Holzman had gone off to prepare for an evening dinner meeting with yet another group of clients.
Palmer left his office at Bay Hill and went to the locker room for a beer before heading home. We talked a bit about his business, the trip, sports. He said he hadn’t attended a baseball game since Bill Mazeroski’s landmark home run lifted the Pirates over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Guess he figured it couldn’t get any better than that.
The next morning, Ed and I flew back to Jacksonville.
He was looking forward to a relaxing weekend. That night, he would plant himself in front of the television to watch his beloved Florida Gators.
I returned home and, within an hour, was mowing the lawn.
Life as I know it.
Other than a lingering thought of what Arnie might be doing that day.