Arnold Palmer has been described in many ways over his legendary career in golf: charismatic, determined, generous, accessible, successful, a man of the people. His accomplishments inside and outside the game have earned him countless honors, and on Sept. 12 in Washington, D.C., he became just the sixth sportsman to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Palmer received the medal in a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, nearly three years after Congress voted to award it to him; President Barack Obama signed the act into law on Sept. 30, 2009, shortly after Palmer’s 80th birthday. The award dates to the American Revolution (General George Washington was the first recipient), and upon approval, the U.S. Mint crafts each medal to recognize the achievements of the honoree. The front of Palmer’s medal includes his name and shows him in his follow-through, while the reverse recognizes Palmer’s 92 professional victories and seven major championships.
“I am very humbled,” said Palmer upon receiving his medal in an hour-long ceremony that was attended by his longtime friendly rival in both golf and business, Jack Nicklaus.
Another word that could be used to describe Palmer: unifying. If there is one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it is recognition of Palmer. The bill to award the medal to Palmer passed 422–1 in the House and unanimously in the Senate. In addition, chief executives from both parties have honored Palmer: The three-time USGA champion received the National Sports Award from President Bill Clinton in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2004.
In a display of bipartisan support, the Congressional leadership of both parties was on hand for Wednesday’s presentation: Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both Republicans; and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, both Democrats.
“I’m particularly proud of anything the House and the Senate agree on,” Palmer joked.
The five athletes who previously received the Congressional Gold Medal are baseball players Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson, track and field standout Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Louis and 1939 U.S. Open champion Byron Nelson, who received the honor posthumously in 2006. Robinson and Louis were both featured earlier this year by the USGA Museum in its exhibit, “American Champions and Barrier Breakers,” which documents their efforts to make golf – as well as their more celebrated sports – more inclusive.
As Palmer noted in Wednesday’s ceremony, “I like to think and truly believe golf and golfers promote human values.”
The Congressional Gold Medal historically recognizes those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”
Even as Palmer turns 83 (on Sept. 10), his accomplishments and impact on golf are ongoing. His long relationship with the USGA includes three championships (1954 U.S. Amateur, 1960 U.S. Open, 1981 U.S. Senior Open) and the 1971 Bob Jones Award, the Association’s highest honor. Palmer has also been the honorary chairman of the USGA Members Program since its inception in 1975.
Another word that could be used to describe Palmer: prescient. In 2005, the USGA announced that upon completion of a major expansion project, it would call its museum the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History and include a permanent exhibit containing artifacts from Palmer’s life and career. Palmer was asked at the accompanying news conference whether the museum honor put him “one up” on Nicklaus, against whom he has competed on the course, in the course design field and in numerous business ventures over decades.
Palmer laughed, then replied, “Well, Jack’s 10 years younger than I am and in 10 years they’ll do another room here for Jack, and they should. That’s the way it’s been all these years, these last 40 years. I precede him but he’s close behind.”
Earlier this year, the USGA announced that it would break ground on a Jack Nicklaus Room in its Far Hills museum, with a scheduled completion date of 2015, exactly 10 years on from Palmer’s prediction. In April, the House of Representatives took the first step in awarding Nicklaus the Congressional Gold Medal by passing a bill supporting the measure.
Another word that could be used to describe Palmer: grace. The late actor Jack Lemmon once told a friend that “The King” has that elusive quality. “Think about what that word means to you,” Lemmon said. “I’ll bet you can’t say that about five friends you have.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.