Two of the men who were closest to Arnold Palmer—in age and in the professional and personal ways they assisted their great friend—were Doc Giffin and Charlie Mechem.
At 87, Giffin is as old as Palmer was at his death on Sept. 25. A former Pittsburgh newspaper man, Giffin has since 1966 been the ubiquitous and efficient, but uncannily unobtrusive, “Assistant to Arnold Palmer.” Mechem, who will be 87 next September, is the former LPGA commissioner who, since 1996, was Palmer’s advisor, business partner and sounding board while also staying largely in the background.
Both men were in contact with Palmer either in person or by phone several times a week. Now both are struggling with a tremendous void. The man whose public presence could dominate a playing field or a television screen, and who left a legacy like very few others who’ve ever lived, is most intensely missed by those who knew him privately.
Mechem served as the lead speaker at Palmer’s memorial service last week at the basilica at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. On the flight back to his home in California, Mechem said to another of Palmer’s longtime close friends, Russ Meyer, “You know, now the hard part starts.”
Giffin feels the absence in a particularly physical way in his office in Latrobe, where Palmer also had a residence adjacent to the Latrobe Country Club, the golf course Palmer’s father had been the head pro and where Arnie had learned to play.
“It’s just so strange to go to the office,” Giffin says in a voice as deeply resonant as that of his longtime boss. “Every day there would be four of us who worked for Arnold waiting there in the morning for him to drive down in his golf cart from his house. Sometimes before he came in he’d beep a little horn, and then come in and say, ‘Well, what’s going on today?’
“But now it’s just difficult, these last two weeks to look in that office, where everything is just as it was. Except that there is no one in that chair.”
Giffin sighs audibly into the phone and tries to sum up his loss. “It’s hard to believe that it happened, even though over the last two years, I’ve sadly watched Arnold slowly decline. It was painful, because he was always so robust. He enjoyed golf so much, and the fact that he couldn’t even hit balls for almost two years, it was just sad.
“He meant my lifetime to me. It was a thrill when he offered me the job, and it was exciting for 50 years. He was not only as the public sees him. He was a great man at all times. Public and private.”
Mechem opened and closed the Palmer memorial in Latrobe, noting the service ‘will carry me for a very long time.’
Mechem was Palmer’s next-door neighbor for two months a year at The Tradition Country Club in La Quinta, where they would often share breakfast. The rest of the year they spoke by phone, often four or five days times a week. In the last few weeks, the rate had gone up.
“Sometimes the conversations would last 60 seconds, sometimes a lot longer,” Mechem said. “Arnold would want to be brought up to date on things at Tradition, he was always interested in what was going on at the restaurant [Arnold Palmer’s Restaurant, of which Mechem is a part owner]. He would talk to me about things going on at Latrobe or Bay Hill, or in the golf world in general. We talked about politics, the market, about flying. And then he’d begun to talk more about his upbringing, his parents, about his brothers, sisters. The kind of things that pals talk about.
“It was not a maudlin thing. As the years pile up, we begin to reflect on how wonderful our lives have been. I think very understandably he thought more and more about his friends, and the amazing things that had happened to him. Because he never forgot where he came from.”
“Arnold had a wonderful modesty,” Mechem continued. “He used to often say, ‘I’m not very smart.’ Well, he was wrong. He was sneaky smart, and he was very, very wise. Other people knew it, because nothing in the golf world happened unless the person pushing it ran it by Arnold. Yes, people wanted his blessings. But they also very much wanted his wisdom. And I don’t think you can be a pilot of Arnold’s skill level and not have a damn good brain.”
Mechem says that Palmer cared about golf in all its facets. “He got in a pattern of writing a letter to the winner of every LPGA event,” Mechem said. “He knew that meant a lot to me. I never, ever heard him complain about his health. Some days he would admit that he didn’t feel as good as yesterday, but that was it. He genuinely expected that he was going to get to the range and start hitting balls. I would say to him, ‘You hit any balls yet?’ And he’d say, ‘No, but I’m gonna.’ That was very important in his life.”
Personally, Mechem was uplifted by the service, noting that it “will carry me for a very long time,” a balm during a moment when the lose of his good friend was starting to painfully settle in. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he said. “We live right next to his house there. I use his golf carts to get me around a little bit. The inability to talk to him. The inability to see him … he’s in my mind constantly.”
Giffin says he most misses Palmer’s off-the-cuff needling, and the effort he’d spend on constructing and timing an avenging zinger.
“We had a great relationship—he was so kind to me.” Giffin said. “Early on I said, when you retire I’ll retire. But ... still going. I know I’m needed for awhile. It’s going to take months to answer all the recognitions and letters of sympathy and messages. Arnold would have wanted us to acknowledge everyone and everything.
“As he always did.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Oct. 10, 2016 issue of Golf World.