Latrobe and The Arnold Palmer Name
As Palmer’s fame rose throughout the 20th century, Latrobe and the region’s profile climbed with it.
The Latrobe, Pa., native never left Latrobe, even when he was accepting trophies at golf tournaments, dining at the White House with the Queen or pitching Rolex watches in magazines.
When he died on Sept. 25, Arnold Palmer was eulogized as the everyman who brought a high-class sport to all classes. The Arnold Palmer myth, one indoctrinated into Latrobe natives like myself, was again remembered: He was the son of a country-club golf pro who would one day own the club itself and control a business empire that stretched far beyond western Pennsylvania to countries around the world.
As Palmer’s fame rose throughout the 20th century, Latrobe and the region’s profile climbed with it. There was never a question about where he started his ascension. Think about it: Who knows where Jack Nicklaus grew up? That was partly due to Palmer’s affinity for his home base, and partly because Latrobe’s status as a former steel town past its heyday so perfectly fit the golfer’s “brand” and “narrative” — two terms he almost single-handedly attached to today’s popular athlete.
Palmer grew up in a house 50 yards from the old sixth tee of Latrobe Country Club, flew himself from Latrobe to tournaments and appearances throughout his career and lived on Legends Lane in Latrobe when he died. For Latrobeans, he was the most famous thing about our town — his name was everywhere — and the most familiar (his name was everywhere).
Palmer’s intertwining with Latrobe started in ads for Pennzoil, featuring the tractor he used while growing up. The commercials were filmed not far from his home, and several mentioned the town by name. “We use it here at Latrobe everyday,” he said. The ads, starring a rusty tractor on a golf green, introduced a blueprint for Palmer’s business enterprise: The man who won 62 PGA Tour titles wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
“The brand was spread across so many diverse demographics that all looked on Arnold in a different way,” says Alastair Johnston, CEO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises and business manager for Palmer for 38 years. “The same guy who could wear a Rolex watch was the same guy who could pour his own oil for Pennzoil.”
Palmer’s grounding in the region made his name an aspiration — he came from a town like yours and made it to the stratosphere. It was a dichotomy that threaded nearly every deal he struck. Dinner for two at Arnold Palmer’s Restaurant in La Quinta, Calif., easily runs more than $100, but the “Arnie’s Favorites” section of the menu features meatloaf. His chain of a half-dozen dealerships sold General Motors cars, with a focus on Cadillac and Buick, as well as Pontiacs and Jaguars. Arnold Palmer golf shirts were sold for $20 in Lazarus department stores and tuition at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy cost $32,000 a year.
Latrobeans live in a domain of Palmer’s making: My mom bought her Buick at Arnold Palmer Motors, we ate spaghetti specials at the Blue Angels restaurant housed inside the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport and drove around ogling McMansions in the Palmer Place neighborhood off Arnold Palmer Drive.
Palmer knew what his global reputation could mean for local businesses. “He was never beyond a phone call when we needed an act for an airshow,” says Gabe Monzo, executive director at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, which was named for the golfer in 1999. Palmer attended monthly meetings as a member of the airport authority, Monzo says, and dove into its daily details.
When the airport needed to buy out a nearby resident whose home was in the way of new construction, Palmer strategized the negotiations to avoid eminent-domain litigation. He helped to convince Spirit Airlines representatives to add an Orlando route — one of several that have caused passenger traffic to increase more than tenfold between 2010 and 2015. Business correspondence to airlines was sent on Arnold Palmer letterhead, in an Arnold Palmer envelope. “Then you know the chairman of the board was going to open that one,” says Monzo.
The Latrobe car dealership located less than three miles away from the airport is the last operating site of Arnold Palmer Automotive Group. Palmer, whose cursive signature is the dealership’s logo, was sent a daily report on business.
“People were, are and will still be proud to buy cars here,” says Ron Paluzzi, the dealership’s general manager.
What Arnold Palmer came to stand for is not likely to go away now that the man himself is gone. His business team ensured that decades ago.
As hotter, younger golfers began to emerge on the scene, Johnston and his team knew Palmer himself wasn’t as famous as he once was, but his brand — strong, American, aspirational — could still stand for something.
So they decided to supplement Palmer’s face with a catch-all logo, and the ubiquitous multi-colored umbrella that adorns his merchandise was created. The shift allowed Palmer’s empire to travel across borders and demographics, to customers who didn’t know the myth of the Latrobean who became “The King.”
Now, there are more than 400 free-standing Arnold Palmer stores selling branded apparel across Asia, where the brand at one point was especially popular with teenage girls. “A lot of people buying it have no idea who Arnold Palmer is,” says Johnston. “They think Arnold Palmer is like Hugo Boss or Tommy Hilfiger.”
Before Johnston started working with Palmer, the golfer teamed up with Mark McCormack, an agent who flew to Latrobe in 1960 to sign him. Soon after taking on Palmer as his first client, McCormack founded IMG Worldwide Inc., a top sports talent agency that now represents athletes as varied as John Madden to Maria Sharapova, all of whom are following the Palmer playbook of melding athleticism and business acumen into their own narratives. Sports agents credit Palmer’s fame and drive with helping McCormack build IMG into a global powerhouse. In 2013, the firm was sold to Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor for $2.4 billion.
Johnston says Arnold Palmer Enterprises will continue to manage Palmer’s legacy, even if its newer customers are more familiar with the brand than the man. “We have turned it more into a lifestyle,” he says.
Palmer himself invented the umbrella logo that lives on. During one of those conversations about the future, in the 1960s, he was sitting near a window in a hotel in Ligonier, Pa., when he saw a woman open an umbrella as it started to rain.
In one way it’s a perfect encapsulation of all of the ventures that Latrobe’s most famous resident pursued throughout his career: When it rains, everyone needs an umbrella, whether you’re the groundskeeper’s son or the club’s owner. But in that moment, he saw a woman open an umbrella and thought it would work as a stamp for his empire. It was as simple a creation as that.