The ‘Arnold Palmer Experience’? Cori Britt has lived it
ORLANDO, Fla. – Cori Britt was fortunate that the winter’s wrath that can deep-freeze the suburbs of Pittsburgh in February went gentle on him on a recent trip home to Latrobe. Britt, Vice-President and Brand Manager at Arnold Palmer Enterprises, was there to sort through some memorabilia to bring back to sunny Florida for the new Arnold Palmer Experience to be unveiled at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Britt, who is 45, knows more about the Arnold Palmer Experience than most. He has lived it, first meeting the man when Britt went to work at age 12 as a caddie at Latrobe Country Club. Two years later, Royce Nielson, Palmer’s then-caddie at professional events, handpicked the youngster to caddie for other players in Palmer’s group when Palmer played at home during summers at Latrobe. Early on, Britt had a front-row ticket to watch an American icon at work. Lucky kid.
“I was only 14, but it struck me how dedicated he was,” Britt said of Palmer, who died in September 2016 at age 87. “Even though he was having fun, it was amazing how focused he was. He was always working, always trying. There was nothing ‘light’ about the way he played. He’d be as serious as if he was playing a competitive round, and then between shots, he’d be joking around with his buddies. That really struck me, how he could go from one mental state of being so focused to joking and laughing.”
When Britt graduated from Latrobe’s Saint Vincent College in 1996, he went to work for Arnold Palmer Enterprises. Palmer had sent Britt off to his golf club company in Tennessee to gain some business experience, and by the autumn of 1998 Britt had returned to Latrobe to work in the office with famed Palmer PR man Doc Giffin. Britt joined Palmer as the King made his annual pilgrimage south to Bay Hill that winter, where he would help with Palmer’s many appearance requests and correspondence and general office work. He also would add another job he’d come to love: He would became Palmer’s full-time caddie. Palmer was nearing 70 and no longer was playing a full-time schedule, scrambling to hire fill-in caddies when he did play. Britt decided to approach him with a thought.
“It was right before the Bay Hill tournament,” Britt said, “and I walked out to him and said, ‘Hey, you’re always looking around for caddies. I’ve caddied before, you know that. If I traveled with you, I could keep you up to speed on the business side, make sure you’re getting to appointments and all that, and I could caddie for you during the day.’
“He said, ‘That’ll be great. We’ll try it out for Bay Hill.’ ” And then Palmer added this caveat, telling Britt, “But if you do it for Bay Hill, I need you for Augusta.”
Britt laughs at the memory. “I was like, ‘Ah, well, OK.’ Those were two pretty high-pressure events to caddie for him.”
Britt told a funny story about being on Palmer’s bag for the first time at Augusta National during Masters week in 1999. Palmer had practiced chipping before his round, and Britt had forgotten to clean the club afterward. So when he handed the same club to Palmer just off the first green, Palmer saw the caked-on grass, gave Britt a little wink, reached for the towel and wiped off the face. Nary a word was spoken, but the lesson was imparted.
“There was a lot of that,” Britt said. “Unspoken things that he didn’t have to say a word, but he never had to tell me again. It wasn’t a stern look; it was very subtle. There was something about the way he conveyed messages to me. There was a lot of that in business, too – but on the golf course, you’re under more scrutiny. He’d get his message across.”
And off the two went for more than 15 years, Palmer (who flew his own plane until February of 2011) heading off to events with Britt at his side. Skins Games, tournaments in Hawaii, corporate outings, across the pond to the Open Championship … Britt said one thing was constant. He never did get to see much of the towns he visited because his boss was such a hard worker. Even in his later years, Palmer was grinding on his game, every day.
Britt keeps an office upstairs above the men’s locker room at Bay Hill, right next to where his boss used to hold court every day. Britt says he will scale the steps to the second floor and miss the scent of Palmer’s strong cologne that once dominated the space upstairs. The King is gone, but his legacy, and the tournament he brought to Bay Hill some 40 years ago (the former Citrus Open played across town at Rio Pinar) lives on.
Britt misses his boss all the time, and he misses seeing all the familiar faces he’d run into at events around the country. The relationships. Bay Hill and the Masters always were two special tournaments. At Bay Hill, Palmer would cap a busy week by spending time on Sunday in the Lexington Cottage adjacent to the 18th fairway, watching the tournament as it unfolded and heading up to the 18th green as the champion putted out. Palmer spent more than a year of his life at Augusta National, so that, too, was like a second home. In his last trip there, in April 2016, there were two empty chairs on the first tee prior to the famed Honorary Starters teeing off. Buzzy Johnson, senior director of the Masters, made sure that those seats were filled by Palmer and Britt. There, Palmer, in failing health, thanked his adoring fans at Augusta National with one final, signature thumbs up.
“That was really emotional,” Britt said. “You sensed that was going to be the last time that he was there.”
Britt says he owes so much to Palmer. Palmer taught Britt about work ethic early on and gave him his career. Britt would meet his wife, Kristin, because he was with Palmer spending time in Orlando one winter. Britt got married on the putting green outside the dining room, and Arnold and Kit Gawthrup, who would become Palmer’s second wife, were in attendance. The Britts’ two children were born at Orlando’s Winnie Palmer Hospital.
“I pinch myself constantly,” Britt said. “He’s been such a huge part of my life. I mean … I’ve known him since I was 12 years old.”