A Crowning Moment for the People's King
Shortly after 11 last Wednesday morning, as the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band played a stately processional, Arnold Palmer followed the Armed Forces Color Guard into the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol and took a seat on a small platform between the current leaders of both houses of Congress.
He smiled out at the 200 or so invited friends seated beneath Charles Bullfinch’s extraordinary rotunda dome — where Abraham Lincoln and 10 other presidents have lain in state — and gave a modest little wave and boyish grin as if he were merely strolling up the sunlit 18th fairway at Augusta National rather than receiving the nation's highest civilian award: the Congressional Gold Medal.
It was the kind of small but endearing gesture of acknowledgement he’s made to adoring galleries for nigh on seven decades, and the reason Arnold Palmer’s the closest thing golf — for that matter, America itself — will ever have to a king.
“You almost get the feeling,” observed the woman seated on my left, “he’s waving directly at you, personally thanking you for coming.”
That feeling of gratitude and comfortable intimacy with his uncounted millions of fans, of course, is exactly what sets Arnold Daniel Palmer apart from every other golfer who’s ever lived — for that matter, every professional athlete. His 92 professional wins and seven major championships, his go-for-broke playing style and natural small-town charisma made “Arnie” the best known and most beloved golfer of his generation and set off the largest popular golf boom in history, a period of sustained growth that brought more than an estimated 24 million Americans to the game and lasted more than 40 years.
Three years ago, on his 80th birthday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Arnold Palmer Gold Medal Act, making the “King of Golf” the first person in history to receive all three of the nation's highest civilian honors. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton presented Palmer the National Sports Award, followed in 2004 by the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President George W. Bush. Upon its passage, President Barack Obama signed the act honoring Palmer with the Congressional Gold Medal, first given to George Washington in 1776 and to 141 other exemplary Americans since.
“I didn’t know George Washington,” Arnie quipped during the Oval Office signing ceremony, “but if I did, I would shake his hand and say, ‘You’re the first, and I won’t be the last.’”
Wednesday’s medal presentation ceremony beneath Columbia’s dome was merely the capstone to an amazing life and public career highlighted by Palmer’s success on the golf course and his ambassadorial greatness off it.
A stream of politicians headed by House Speaker John Boehner and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cited Palmer's philanthropic work as the longtime chairman of March of Dimes, his early and enthusiastic support of The First Tee, and as creator of two cancer centers and a hospital for women and children.
“What makes this medal unique,” said Boehner, a serious golfer, “is that any American can win it, whether it be a general, an artist, an astronaut or an athlete. Arnold democratized golf, made us think that we too could go out and play. Made us think that we could do anything, really. All we had to do was go out and try.”
Glancing at his friend, Boehner — having quipped that he might not make it through his remarks — choked up when he said to the honoree, “Arnold, you’ve struck our hearts and our minds, and today your government, your fellow citizens are going to strike a gold medal for you.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talked movingly of Palmer’s philanthropic works and remarked, “Golf made you famous, but your tireless efforts to save lives, not your short game, will make you immortal.”
First, a Friend to All
For many of us fortunate to know this living icon, the best moments of the ceremony came when country star Vince Gill performed a stunningly beautiful version of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” his clear tenor voice echoing around the 180-foot rotunda, followed by a beautiful meditation by Arnie’s greatest rival and friend, Jack Nicklaus, who recounted the first time he ever saw Arnold Palmer at a tournament in 1954.
Jack was just a teenage fan who was spellbound by a muscular guy hitting balls on the range in the rain. “I went in and asked who he was and somebody told me he’d just won the tournament.” That year Arnold won the U.S. Amateur Championship.
The Golden Bear, who would win the first of his two amateur titles five years later and go on to capture 73 Tour titles and an unprecedented 18 major championships, spoke movingly of their titantic battles like the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1962 (where Jack, a winless rookie dressed in J.C. Penny clothes, beat King Arnold in a playoff to shake the golf firmament).
“That’s the Arnold Palmer I’ll never forget,” Jack refrained throughout his elegant remarks, his own voice cracking at moments. “Arnold always treated me like a competitor but most of all, a friend,” he concluded his tribute. The applause was thunderous.
Upon receiving his gold medal, only the sixth athlete in American history to do so, Arnold simply smiled and kept his own remarks uncharacteristically short and sweet.
“I’m particularly proud of anything the House and Senate agree on,” he quipped, later, telling his sister Sandy he might easily have choked up himself had he been forced to speak longer.
During the lively lunch afterward in the Cannon House Office Building, old friends and family and a Who’s Who of the political and golf worlds clustered around and congratulated the man who more or less invented modern golf and symbolized the best of American sportsmanship. Not surprisingly, many asked him for an autograph and a photograph — which of course, being Arnold, he obliged.
As I stood waiting in the building’s busy lobby for my wife to visit the ladies’ room before we headed back to the Sandhills, a passing office worker asked me who was being honored upstairs with such a lavish turnout, so many government bigwigs.
“I’m guessing it must be a visiting royal,” she joked.
“You’re right,” I told her. “A real people’s king.”
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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