To his millions of fans around the world, Monday is the culmination of a very, very long year. Sept. 25, 2016 was the day the world lost the most beloved and impactful man in the history of golf. Arnold Palmer passed away 365 days ago at age 87, ending a life well lived, one that touched the lives of countless numbers of adoring fans who lived and died with the man who was dubbed “The King.”
Among those who felt the loss most acutely was his wife of 12 years, Kit. Earlier this year, she returned to the home Palmer built her in Latrobe, Pa. In the comfortable surroundings of that hillside wooden home a few steps away from Palmer’s office, she reminisced about her time with the man credited with bringing golf to the masses.
“It was nice,” Kit said with a smile. “But what was really nice is that I learned a lot about him, watching how he treated people and how he was with his friends. You can judge people by the company they keep, except that he was so down to earth. He could have taken his popularity and status to heart, but that wasn’t him. Our relationship wasn’t what I would call a storybook relationship. It felt normal. We did what normal people do.”
Palmer and his first wife, Winnie, met and became friends with Kit and her then-husband, Al Gawthrop Jr. The initial connection happened when Palmer started playing in events at Pebble Beach Golf Links and met Kit’s father-in-low and husband, who were involved in Pebble’s ownership group.
Arnold and Kit eventually began a long-distance relationship after Winnie passed away in 1999, and Kit was divorced.
“I had a job in California, working in a small church doing weddings,” Kit recalled. “And we did the cross-country commute and yes, we’d go out. I learned a lot about Latrobe. We’d go out to dinner and meet his friends and that was fun. We were married 12 years but did the cross-country thing for probably five years.”
Included among her many memories of being Mrs. Arnold Palmer was a time when the couple was flying somewhere in his Citation X and Palmer pointed out the curvature of the earth. “That was so neat, the sun was setting and it created a mystical picture,” she said. “I almost got a pilot’s license, I was ready to solo but never did. I appreciated flying in that jet.”
Of course, their very private wedding in January 2005 on the north shore of Oahu was certainly special. It was done without pomp and circumstance, and was attended by a very select few guests.
But as the one-year anniversary of his death approached, Kit’s thoughts gravitated more to the quiet and simple things she and Palmer did and shared.
“We could do nothing together and have a good time,” she said. “He wasn’t out and about doing so much as he got older, but I think we got closer as he got older. There were times where we’d just take off and drive and see where we went. We didn’t have to do big things. As long as he could get a Western on TV, and have a Kettle, he was fine.
“Arnold was one of those people who could do things at the spur of the moment, but if he had a plan or commitment, he was never late.”
She said her very famous husband, who could easily have chosen to be like other celebrities and insulate himself from fans, loved having people around. Lots of people. And he especially liked having her around.
“I’d go into the office and sit with him for a while and when I’d go somewhere else in the office, I would hear him ask, Where’s Kit?” she said. “He depended on me.”
She said the two worked on a big project that Palmer was very proud of.
“When we got married and came back to Latrobe, we lived in the white house [Palmer’s home he shared with Winnie],” Kit said. “We considered altering it but the family wanted to keep it as it is. We certainly understood that so Arnold said, ‘Let’s build a new house.’ That was so Arnold. Very typical.”
The decision was made to build the house on a heavily wooded hill just up from Palmer’s office.
“It was a fun project,” she said. “He got a kick out of figuring it all out. Even though neither of us were experts, the detail in the house was the fun part to do. It’s kind of a selfish house, two bedrooms in a big house.”
Kit tries not to think about her husband’s last months and doesn’t talk about it, other than to say, “It was tough to see someone so strong …” and then her voice trailed off.
She spoke eloquently, however, in describing some of the qualities she’ll always remember about him.
“Everything about him was admirable,” she said. “His character, he was patient, well-grounded in morals and ethics. He always just knew the right thing to do. He had a good sense of right and wrong. And he was so much fun. He might be doing something he didn’t want to be doing, but he was never rude about it, he was always gracious.”