Joie Chitwood III: 'That red cardigan is special'

While Chitwood's roots are in racing, the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament director understands the need to 'preserve, protect and perpetuate' Palmer's legacy

Rory McIlroy winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational and wearing in the winner's red cardigan sweater in 2018 typified the Arnold Palmer reputation for tournament director Joie Chitwood III.

ORLANDO, Fla.— Joie Chitwood III’s grandfather was a tough man. A tough man.

He was a race-car driver in the 1940s who finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 three times. When auto racing was outlawed during World War II, Chitwood bought the remnants of a stunt-car show from the widow of Earl “Lucky” Teter, a stunt-show pioneer from Noblesville, Ind., who died during a jumping stunt.

Now, what part of that purchase sounds like a good idea unless you’re a tough man?

The Chitwood family spent 55 years in the stunt-car business. Joie Chitwood III is now in the golf business as the vice president of corporate development for the Arnold Palmer Group and oversees the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

When Chitwood III was 14, the ABC television show “That’s Incredible!” came to the Sunshine Speedway in St. Petersburg, Fla., to film a segment on the family, which had been featured on “Wide World of Sports” in the late 1960s and again in 1977. Joie was supposed to climb out the passenger window of a car while his dad drove it up on two wheels so he practiced getting in and out of the window on a car that was tilted up on blocks while his grandfather, known as Chief, rocked it to simulate movement.

Joie Chitwood Stunt Show
The Joie Chitwood stunt-car show was widely accilaimed.

“I did it 20 times, then my grandfather suddenly pushes the car off the blocks back onto four wheels,” Joie remembers. “I get thrown off the car, I’m rolling around in the dirt. I get up and say, ‘Chief, why’d you do that? He said, ‘You’ve gotta learn that, too.’

“What’d I learn that day? Nothing. I was 14. But 10 years later, after a therapy session or two — that’s a joke — it became a poignant moment for me. You’ve got to learn not to succeed, learn not to like it and then get up and keep going. I’ll remember that until the day I’m no longer around.”

Four decades or so later, Chitwood hasn’t had a lot of experience with failure. That doesn’t include his “That’s Incredible!” experience. He was hoping for an introduction to Cathy Lee Crosby, one of the show’s co-hosts who starred in a “Wonder Woman” movie a year before Lynda Carter created the iconic role in a weekly series. The attractive Crosby was not on location for the filming. “I didn’t get to meet her,” Chitwood says. “I was mad.”

Otherwise, his road to success has mostly involved roads, including 20 years as a performer in the Chitwood stunt shows, which ran until 1998, and another two decades in the racing business.

Chitwood has put his business and finance degree from the University of Florida to good use. He came to the Arnold Palmer Group after a stint as the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the International Speedway Corporation, which runs the Indianapolis 500. Before that, he was president of the Daytona International Speedway from 2010 until 2016 and oversaw a $400 million project that updated and transformed the speedway. He also led the track’s repaving project, only the second in its 58-year history.

So, what’s a road warrior/speedway guy doing running a golf tournament with Arnold Palmer’s name on it? Pretty much the same thing he did operating legendary races — preserving and improving the brand.

Chitwood believes there are more similarities to racing and golf than most people realize. There’s a cross-country global schedule. There is no home team like traditional team sports. The athletes are independent contractors who compete where and when they want. Both sports rely on creating and selling hospitality to fans and corporate customers. “You’re selling a lot of the same products,” Chitwood says.

Chitwood’s first tournament was the 1992 Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill when he skipped out of class at his Jesuit high school in Lake Mary to attend his first pro golf event.

He remembers standing in the gallery behind the tee at the second hole, a par-3, on a Thursday. “Somebody hit their tee shot in the front bunker,” says Chitwood, who doesn’t recall which player it was. “I remember that golfer expressed himself strongly. I kind of smirked and laughed like, ‘Oh, they say things that you’re not supposed to say, too.’ That’s the memory that pops out the most. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Palmer’s for a long time and I’m excited to get to be a part of it here now.’”

Joie Chitwood III
Joie Chitwood III

Chitwood plans to make more golf memories for fans these days. For starters, the tournament has a new White Claw Fan Deck located behind the 15th green and just above the 16th tee, a spot that used to be the NBC compound for the week. It’s a premium location for fans who want to upgrade. There are also new ultra-premium decks at Nos. 6, 15 and 18.

“The White Claw Fan Deck is where we want to see our fans express some energy and enthusiasm because on Sunday, you’re probably going to see some player do something on 15 or 16 or 17 so they can survive 18 and win the tournament,” Chitwood says. “We want to make sure those fans let our players know how much we support and appreciate them. I want to be clear. We will be respectful to all of our players. We do not throw things out on the course. But we will cheer and be enthusiastic.”

And, Chitwood added, the volunteers and marshals are already experienced and trained to make sure fans don’t get overly zealous, like the WM Phoenix Open fans who took to hurling beers and trash onto the green after a hole-in-one at first, and then other good shots.

Chitwood said the API is working with 15 new corporate sponsors this year. One key to finding them, he said, was giving them more options. “Maybe they didn’t want to entertain 40 people but with our new cabanas at 14, they can entertain 14 people,” he says. “Or if you’d like to buy twos or fours, we have something in the Palmer Terrace. The key is having the right product for the company’s budget, whatever it is. What are their desires? So, we went through our product mix to offer options we’ve never done before instead of saying, ‘Well, we only have full skyboxes.’”

Some PGA Tour events have struggled once they lose their namesake — the old Bob Hope Classic, for instance, or the Byron Nelson Classic. Since Palmer’s passing, however, the API seems to be on the upswing. This year, the PGA Tour has a true Florida swing — four events in Florida on four consecutive weeks.

“There are a number of elevated events on the tour,” Chitwood says. “We have a $12 million purse. The winner’s check is $2 million plus. More than anything, to win an event with Mr. Palmer’s name on it, makes it special. I think that’s what really attracts the players.”

Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau withdrew earlier in the week due to an ailing wrist but the field does boast Jon Rahm, ranked No. 1 in the world, and former API champ Rory McIlroy.

The focus of the API, however, will remain on Palmer. “Think about what Mr. Palmer did in his career,” Chitwood says. “Goodness, seven majors; world record flight around the world. He knew every President. He had such stature in this sport.”

Chitwood spent a week in Latrobe, Pa., shortly after taking over in his Arnold Palmer Group role. He wanted to make sure he had a feel for Palmer, the legend, and Palmer, the man.

“What a phenomenal experience,” he says. “I saw the creek hole at Latrobe Country Club, where Arnie would charge a nickel to hit a drive over the creek for the women on Ladies Day; I saw his warehouse, his memorabilia; I sat in Doc Giffin’s office; I saw Arnie’s chair. It was really something.”

The Arnold Palmer brand is precious to Chitwood. That is the business of this golf tournament, which supports the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, in a nutshell. “I worked at the Indy 500, the biggest race in that field,” Chitwood says. “I was at Daytona, NASCAR’s biggest race. I felt very comfortable coming here where you have an iconic sports legend. Our goal is to preserve, protect and perpetuate the Arnold Palmer legacy. Those are the three words we think about every day.”

One more part of the brand is the familiar red, yellow, green and white umbrella. National Umbrella Day was Feb. 10 and Chitwood’s group used a social media campaign to turn it into Arnold Palmer Umbrella Day. “During the Phoenix Open,” Chitwood says, “even that tournament was jumping in and taking part that day. Look, we want Mr. Palmer’s voice to be as relevant 20 years from now as he is today.”

A great touch, done after Palmer passed but before Chitwood arrived at Bay Hill, was changing the winner’s prize from a blue sportcoat and a sword to a red cardigan and a trophy with a figure of Palmer posed in his famous follow-through. If you want to see what goose bumps look like, watch video from the 2018 API when Rory McIlroy won the title and first put on a replica of Palmer’s famous red cardigan sweater. He was clearly thrilled and not just because he’d won a golf tournament.

The blue sport coats are in Chitwood’s office now. They signify the past.

The red cardigan? It ranks as the second most identifiable prize in golf behind a certain green jacket.

“That red cardigan is special,” Chitwood says. “We need to be unique, we need it to always be special.”

That may be a tough task but for Chitwood, who used to cling to a car hood while wearing a helmet and fire suit as The Human Battering Ram as the car drove through a wall of flaming boards, it doesn’t pose a problem. He learned tough a long time ago.