As Liz McCarthy walked into the British Golf Museum in 2009, the young man who took her ticket apologized, saying she was a bit late.
All the excitement had happened that morning, he told her.
“Mr. Palmer was here to visit us,” the man said.
McCarthy said it was clear to her the man couldn’t wait to get off work so he could call his family to share the news.
“His life had been made,” she said Monday.
He had met Arnold Palmer.
It was a reaction McCarthy witnessed over and over again during her nearly 18 years of working for and traveling with the legendary golfer, who died Sunday evening.
It was a tribute to what Palmer meant to his fans, she said. Fans who adored him long after he stopped topping leaderboards on the tour.
McCarthy began working in 1993 for Palmer Course Design Co., when it was at Corona Road and Ponte Vedra Beach Boulevard.
Before that, she had worked at The Haskell Co., where her boss was getting ready to retire. The job at Palmer’s company kept her closer to home and her and her husband’s young sons, who were in elementary school.
McCarthy said she initially dug into contracts and specifications for the company, where she began working before she met Palmer. Before she began a friendship she grew to cherish.
Always time for fans
A couple of months into her job, Palmer’s business partner, Ed Seay, returned from a grand opening of a golf course, frustrated by the logistics of the visit.
McCarthy volunteered to call the next client and set guidelines for Palmer’s visit.
She felt she could schedule the day so the client got everything it desired, Palmer accomplished what he wanted and his fans’ needs were met.
From that point on, she handled the advance work for Palmer’s business travels, going out the day before he arrived and running through every detail. Parking, where there may be a bottleneck in the crowd, media interviews and more.
By handling those details, McCarthy said she could be the “bad guy” when it was time for Palmer to leave — unless he didn’t want to.
“Frequently, we’d adjust,” she said, with a laugh.
One of those times came when Palmer was visiting TPC Twin Cities near Minneapolis and playing the back nine with former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“They were having a blast,” McCarthy said.
Palmer came over to her and said, “My buddy wants to play the front nine.”
Time to adjust.
Palmer would attend an already-scheduled news conference, while Ventura played the first hole. The two would then meet on the second tee.
“They had a very relaxed eight remaining holes,” she said.
The two may have seemed like an unlikely duo, but Palmer had a connection with everybody he met, McCarthy said.
“It’s been said a number of times that he spoke in the same tone to the plumber as he did to queen,” she said. “And he’s met the queen.”
McCarthy said she didn’t think Palmer always realized the impact he had on his fans.
Taking the time to meet them, make eye contact with them and always listening when they had a story to tell.
Oftentimes, they brought memorabilia to events for Palmer to sign. Cherished memories that had been left to them by their father or mother.
Other times, they shared stories about how their father or uncle had caddied for him or another tale from the past.
Generally, there was something in a fan’s story that would trigger a memory for Palmer.
“That connection he made with fans was just remarkable and priceless for them,” McCarthy said.
Palmer’s legion of fans never dwindled, she said. Arnie’s Army stayed faithful.
“It was always Arnie’s Army,” she said.
Palmer was just as loyal to his employees, making them feel at ease from that first meeting. He also was interested in their families and enjoyed finding ways to show that.
McCarthy laughs when she recalls the first time her sons, Trey and Christopher, met Palmer. The family was at the Palmer-owned Bay Hill course in Orlando, when she called to see if Palmer had time for a visit. Sure, his wife said, come on by.
As they walked into the workshop at his home, the boys’ first image of Palmer is one that’s pretty memorable.
Palmer had a golf club in one hand and a blowtorch in another. Christopher summed it up well. “Wow, that’s cool,” he said.
McCarthy also cherishes the time in 2010 when, at the last minute, she asked Palmer if there were two seats available on his plane heading to the Masters tournament
She surprised her husband, Jim, with his first trip on Palmer’s plane for a two-day visit to the tournament in Augusta, Ga.
“For us to fly up like that, that was so cool,” she said.
The next summer, the company downsized and cut 75 percent of the employees. Though McCarthy was one of them, she maintained a friendship with Palmer.
Their first conversation after she was laid off was filled with reminiscing about all they done together, the places they visited and the people they met.
They talked periodically from that point on. She called his home Sept. 10 to wish him a happy 87th birthday. Palmer wasn’t there, but McCarthy shared the news about the birth of her granddaughter, Ainsley, with the woman who answered the phone.
McCarthy learned about Palmer’s death Sunday through social media. She knew he had been frail and was nursing some injuries. She also knew he had been scheduled for cardiac surgery Monday morning.
She called Sunday night and talked to a woman she knows who worked for Palmer. The woman had shown him the photo of McCarthy’s granddaughter and said he was “very pleased” about Ainsley.
Despite working closely with Palmer for nearly 18 years and staying friends long after that, McCarthy never called him by his first name. It was always Mr. Palmer.
“That’s just the way I was raised,” she said.
McCarthy said their relationship was one that was “truly an honor and a privilege” to have.
Like the young man at the British Golf Museum, she felt special.
She had met Arnold Palmer.