In Arnold Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, Pa., a dentist, a businessman and an engineer are sad this week. They’re like millions of other people around the world who observed Monday’s one-year anniversary of the death of the most impactful man in the history of golf.
But the sadness felt by Jim Bryan, Marty Newingham and Brian Miller is different. These men were more than just Palmer’s friends. They were his “Latrobe guys,” his “foursome.”
Any time the three would go to Latrobe Country Club and would find Palmer entertaining business colleagues or friends from out of town, he would introduce them in one of those two ways.
“Everybody wanted to be Arnold Palmer’s friend, and he was friends with so many people,” said Newingham, a businessman who was a high school golf teammate of Dr. Jim Bryan, Palmer’s long-time friend and dentist, and the second member of the Latrobe guys. “We were so fortunate to be in that inner circle that was such a special thing.”
Bryan was a highly skilled amateur for many years in Western Pennsylvania and played golf with Palmer for 30 years. In those early days, Palmer always was looking for games when he was home from his time on the PGA Tour and, eventually, the Champions Tour.
A local businessman handled the task of setting up those games until he sold his business and moved to Florida. Palmer didn’t have a replacement for that job and one day was at the club and approached Bryan and said, “Can I join you?” Once that was answered affirmatively, Bryan was given a simple directive: “Make a game for us, Jimmy.”
That was the beginning of a unique relationship among the four. It began with the group’s playing golf at every opportunity, adjourning to the club or Palmer’s home for post-round beverages to the daily visits with Palmer by one or all three of the guys as his health deteriorated during the last year of his life.
It has been a difficult year for the three.
“It’s been hard,” Bryan said without hesitation. “There’s not a single day when I go to the club that I don’t look to see if his cart is sitting there. I’m thinking I’m going to see that cart. Every Wednesday about 11, I’m waiting for the call from Arnie’s secretary to see if we were playing in the afternoon.
“I play a little bit less because he’s not here,” he conceded. “I definitely miss the fun we had every time we played and certainly miss that competitive spirit of his.”
Newingham expressed similar sentiments.
“I miss him a lot and sometimes things like this take time to get in touch with your feelings,” he said. “I’ve got a tear in my eye right now. I miss the excitement and positiveness with having an interaction with him. I miss the enthusiasm he brought to getting out and doing something golf-related. I really felt we helped him and that we owed him. We always seemed to put a smile on his face.”
Miller, too, misses that shiny green cart with a pair of Callaway staff bags on the back, both jammed with clubs that accompanied Palmer on every trip to the golf course.
“It was one of those things that got you excited,” he said. “Every time, I think about it. He didn’t play a lot of golf in his last years, but we got together all the time. One or all three of us would go see him every day.”
Palmer stopped playing 18 holes eight to 10 years ago when it became more and more difficult to do so. Miller, the engineer, said there were times when their matches would stop at the 16th hole and Palmer would say, “Let’s bunch the bets,” meaning forget the bets and go have a drink.
As time went on, the length of the matches dropped to 14 holes, then nine, then six and eventually to one hole.
In a script worthy of Hollywood, the last of the one-hole matches took place Sept. 25, 2015, exactly one year before Palmer, 87, died in a Pittsburgh hospital.
His Latrobe guys said that was the final hole that Palmer played at Latrobe Country Club.
The club celebrated that tradition last week, duplicating the 16-hole round and following it with a dinner that included some of Palmer’s favorite menu items, such as meatloaf.
“The experiences we had with Arnold are things we’ll never forget,” said Bryan, a 16-time Latrobe club champion. “For me, I got to play as much golf with Arnold Palmer as anyone in my lifetime. His dad [Deacon, the former golf pro and superintendent at Latrobe] probably played the most, but to have played as much as I did, that’s really, really special. It is the greatest golfing treasure I’ve ever experienced. Playing as his regular partner and in his regular group, that’s hard to fathom.
“The incredible job, the great experiences, being an eyewitness to great golf. I can’t tell you how many great shots I saw him hit. I had a hole-in-one, and he was there to witness it. It’s been a hard year; it really has.”
All of us have our own Arnold Palmer memories upon which to reflect. For the Latrobe guys, the anniversary is an even more poignant reminder of their memories.
Mike Dudurich, a long-time golf writer in Western Pennsylvania, hosts The Golf Show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh. He is a freelance golf writer for a variety of outlets and platforms. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MikeDudurich