Dr. Howdy Giles

Commander-in-Chief, Arnie’s Army

By Leonard Finkel

commander in chiefThe journey of Dr. Howdy Giles is one of the most unique golf stories you’ll ever hear, his life every golfer’s dream. The journey began, when Howdy saw Arnold Palmer for the very first time. “He was the King back then. The way he came across on TV, his charisma. It just hooked me.” The first time Howdy Giles saw Palmer in person; he snuck a camera into the LA Open, climbed under the ropes of the press area and took a picture of Arnold receiving his winners check, a whopping $20,000. This would be the first of what would become many thousands of photos of golf’s most beloved figure. He became the “King’s” unofficial personal photographer, opening up a new world of adventure.

The fascination grew; Howdy began collecting everything he could that bore the name or image of Arnold Palmer. His wife Carolyn bought him a set of Wilson Arnold Palmer irons.  They began buying Arnold Palmer clothing and anything else they could get their hands on. “The old Arnold Palmer golf gloves with the umbrella on it, after the glove would wear out, I would cut the umbrella off and have my wife sew it on a visor.” Giles was introduced to Mr. Palmer for the first time at a par-three course on Silver Lake. During the exhibition, Howdy was invited under the ropes to get his picture taken with Palmer. “I carried the picture around with me in my wallet for years.”

Working on the King

“I met Arnold’s dentist at the Masters one year,” related Giles.  “He told me that when he dies I could have Arnold as a patient. He died one year later.” In October of 1978 Mr. Palmer called and said he wanted to come in for a checkup. He wanted to fly in on Sunday, maybe play Wilmington Country Club, and then have his checkup on Monday. Palmer didn’t totally commit to coming and told Giles not to make any special arraignments. So of course Giles cancelled all appointments for Monday. Palmer didn’t call until Friday night to confirm he was coming, at which point Giles bought new linens for the guest room and even had it painted. They played golf on Sunday, and Palmer was a guest at the Giles household that night. Giles has been Palmer’s dentist ever since. “Was I nervous working on his teeth? He was my first famous patient but I wasn’t nervous. Right out of dental school in the Navy, I worked on the Admiral’s teeth. Now that’s pressure”.

The Masters

With his pregnant wife, Giles attended his first Masters in 1968. Arnie missed the cut that year and Giles was devastated. As he attended more Masters tournaments, Giles saw the same Palmer “soldiers” over and over. Bert Harbin, who rented his house to the Palmers from 1964 to 1983, introduced Giles to Arnold’s wife Winnie. “Carolyn and I were introduced to Winnie at the Masters and we walked the final four holes with her. Winnie introduced us to the pro at Bay Hill, Dick Tiddy. I went down shortly thereafter, that was 1973, and took some lessons from Dick, who was Arnie’s college teammate. My wife and I were having dinner in the clubhouse one night when the maitre’ de came to our table and said that Mrs. Palmer just called and wanted to make sure we were having a good time. My idol’s wife is calling to see if we’re having a good time. I said to my wife we have to join. I didn’t care what it cost. That’s how it really got started.”

“I think Winnie really enjoyed our friendship, and my wife and I felt that they sort of made us a part of their family. Winnie would call once a week or at least every other week to see how our daughters were doing. She would usually call around ten at night and Arnie would be in bed. She sort of took us under her wing and said because I was so enthusiastic about Arnie, that she was making me Commander-in-Chief.”

One of Howdy’s greatest claims to fame is that he flies to the Masters every year in Arnie’s Lear Jet, with the Palmer at the controls. “Around seventeen years ago, Arnie asked us if we wanted to fly with him to the Masters.” Howdy and his wife always drove from their condo at Bay Hill to Augusta on their way back north. They would stop for the Masters and then head home to Wilmington, Delaware.  Palmer suggested that his caddie drive Giles’ car to Augusta and that Howdy and his wife fly with him. Carolyn chose to drive, but Howdy flew with Palmer, establishing an annual ritual. “The pros dream about driving down Magnolia Lane and here Arnie is driving his Cadillac and I’m sitting next to him. I’m taking pictures and thinking, this is cool.”

On Course with Arnie

May 27, 1976, was the first time Giles played golf with Palmer. He received a call earlier in the week from Palmer’s insurance agent saying that they would be playing Latrobe together. It was at the time of the President’s Ball honoring Palmer. “Knowing I was playing with Palmer, I couldn’t sleep all week.” Howdy was a nervous wreck. “We were supposed to tee off around one. So I get up at three in the morning.” Dressed and ready to go by eight, Carolyn got him to lie down, clothes and shoes still on, and relax.   Tied up making a commencement speech that morning, Palmer, was late. The game was match play, Palmer giving five a side, with Carolyn filming it all on an old super-8 movie camera. To make a long story short, Giles took “The King” for a ten spot, and had him sign the bill, which he framed along with the signed scorecard. Since then, Giles and Palmer have played more than 100 rounds together.

Bay Hill Neighbors

Around 1981, Winnie called to tell Giles that the condo below them was available at Bay Hill. She said, “We’d love to have you for neighbors.” He did buy a condo below Palmer, but from Palmer partner Delvin Miller, who gave them a better deal. Howdy subsequently built a deck outside so he could sit and watch Arnie tinker with his clubs. “People come down and rent our condo, and Arnie will have drinks with them. Isn’t that neat? Everyone wants their picture with Arnie so having the access I do comes with a lot of perks. My buddies thought that was awesome.”

From December until April, Giles got in the habit of going to Bay Hill every weekend. The Saturday before the 1997 Masters, Howdy was having breakfast with Arnold and Winnie. The Bay Hill Shootout is normally that weekend and Giles usually gets paired with Palmer. At breakfast Howdy asked Arnie who they were paired with and he was told it would be Tiger. According to Giles, Palmer said that Tiger wanted to pick his brain regarding signing autographs at the Masters, the course itself, that type of thing. Carolyn pleaded with Howdy to refrain from being obnoxious with his camera and for the first five holes he didn’t take any pictures. But then he thought, “This is stupid. How many amateurs get to play with these guys at the same time?” He put on his telephoto lens and started taking pictures. It didn’t seem to bother Tiger so Giles clicked off a few rolls, including his own picture with Arnie and Tiger. “The day before, Tiger shot 59 at Isleworth and that day he shot a 69. Then he won the Masters by twelve shots.”

Arnold called at Bay Hill one day and asked if Giles wanted to go out to the course with him. Instead of their usual round at Bay Hill, Giles was told they would be taking the jet to Augusta, since Palmer wanted to get in some practice before the Masters. “I have a picture of Arnold taken from the back of the 13th tee that day that I believe is the only picture of him taken from that angle. Photographers aren’t allowed behind the tee but since it was just the four of us, I was able to take the photo.”

The President and the Caddy

Giles took hundreds of pictures when Palmer and President Bush played Caves Valley together at the President’s Cup “There were eight golf carts with two armed security guards in each cart following us around. Press photographers were kept 300-yards away. The only photographers up close were the president’s photographer and me. I sent Mr. Bush the photos I took and got a nice letter back thanking me.” In return, Giles received pictures from the president’s photographer. He also sent pictures to the secret service agents working that day and was invited to take a full tour of the White House. “I thought President Bush would win re-election and I would be able to go at a later time. I regret not taking them up on that offer.”

Giles is a USGA Rules Official and officiates at most of the major USGA events. He is a member of six golf clubs, including Pine Valley and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, one of only 1,000 members of the R&A worldwide. Playing St. Andrews, Giles pre-requested Tip Anderson, Palmer’s caddie during his British Open appearances. For that round, Howdy brought along a tape recorder asking questions about the British Open experience. One tale that stands out details Palmer’s trials on the 17th hole at the 1960 Open, which Palmer lost by a stroke. The first three days on the approach, Palmer asked Tip about club selection. Each day Tip suggested six-iron. Palmer asked again on the final day, and against Tip’s advice, took out a five-iron. He proceeded to hit over the green, onto the road. The first three days, Palmer three-putted for bogey. The final day he got up-and-down for par, whereupon he turned to his caddy and said,” Tip, you just cost me the championship. I told you it was a five-iron, not a six.”

The Palmer Museum
            Other than Arnold himself, Giles probably has the most extensive Palmer memorabilia collection (visors, clubs, photos, golf gloves, magazine covers, books, golf balls, letters, scorecards, etc.) in the world. Doc Giffin, Arnie’s long-time publicist, states that, “Howdy’s home is done in early, middle and late Palmer.” Palmer didn’t know how many Sports Illustrated covers he was on and after a little research, Howdy discovered it was fourteen. He obtained copies of each for himself and then later, for Palmer too. Giles says he probably has a couple hundred magazines with Palmer on the cover.

Memorabilia items in the Giles collection include: The shoes Arnold wore in the first skins game.  – 14 Sports Illustrated covers, all signed by Palmer.  – All of the Golf World and Golf Digest covers; autographed. – All the Masters books since 1970, signed by Arnold as well as most of the pros. – Palmer golf balls from: Sept 10, 1995, when Arnold shot his age, 66; Sept 5, 1998 when he shot 63; June 16, 1994, Palmer’s last US Open; balls from all his Senior Tour wins (At one point Palmer had a three visit winning streak with Giles, when Palmer won immediately after three consecutive office visits.); and Arnold’s hole-in-one ball from the 12th at TPC Charlotte. Palmer used Howdy’s driver a few times at Bay Hill. He liked it and used it in the first Skins Game. Naturally, Giles has the driver mounted in his basement.

A special Masters album was made for each Augusta member on the occasion of Arnie’s victory in 1964. Howdy just had to have one of those albums, and located a collector who owned one. The collector called saying that he had the album, but he wanted a putter that Palmer had played a tournament with and a letter authenticating that fact. Giles informed the collector that over the years, Palmer had only given him three clubs, none of which he used in a tournament. “The collector told me that he’s got my book, and that’s the deal. I told him I’d speak to Arnie.” Giles is a dreamer and lying in bed one night, his thoughts drifted to how he could get that putter. Knowing that Arnie never gives away any of his clubs, he bought a new “Arnold Palmer” putter at the Bay Hill clubhouse and asked Arnie to play with it, telling him why he was going to all this trouble. Giles thought that if Palmer played with the putter, maybe he could score that commemorative album. Gracious as always, Palmer agreed. During that round, Giles as usual took quite a few photos of Palmer and he got a perfect shot of the putter facing the camera. Giles blew up the picture and put together a package which also included an autographed scorecard, the putter, the ball Palmer used and a letter of authenticity from Arnie. The collector was thrilled and made the swap.
Many of the numerous pictures that Giles has taken over the years have been published in books, magazines and used in promotional campaigns. One particular Giles photo was the inspiration for the famous Leroy Neiman painting of Palmer. Of the nine different images of Palmer on the cans of Arizona Ice Tea, six originated in Howdy’s camera.

More than Just Friends

“The neatest thing for my wife and I, and my daughters, is that Arnie and Winnie both have enriched our lives so much. When we think about all the stuff…I mean I’m just a dentist from Delaware and you dream about this kind of stuff, to play golf with Arnie one day. For me it all happened and we just became very good friends. It was all through Winnie.”

Maybe Dr. Giles’ proudest moment came at his daughters wedding. Just two days after Christmas, Palmer flew from Orlando through a tornado and arrived in Wilmington during a snowstorm. “He doesn’t go to many weddings. It just doesn’t happen.” That his idol would make such an incredible effort and gesture of friendship touched him deeply. “It’s just a warm kind of feeling, it’s hard to explain. I always told my kids, that life’s made up of doing things with neat people and it doesn’t get any neater than Arnold Palmer.”

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