In an unexpected development, Congress did something right this week — it awarded Arnold Palmer a Congressional Gold Medal, reflecting the body’s “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.” In a less unexpected development, John Boehner cried at the ceremony. But I’ll cut our emotionally transparent Speaker a little slack. Arnie is a living reminder of a time when we found legitimate heroes among our sportsmen.
Palmer’s accomplishments are legion. He won 62 PGA Tour events, seven of them major championships. He played the game with a telegenic swagger that yielded equal measures of triumph and heartbreak for his devoted Army. He was a pioneer among athlete pitchmen; Mark McCormack founded sports marketing giant IMG on the basis of a handshake deal with Arnie, recognizing the power of the era’s most charismatic athlete to influence consumer opinion. Palmer even popularized a beverage (equal parts iced tea and lemonade) that bears his name.
Most importantly, though, Palmer held fast to the game’s ideals of integrity and fair play. “I like to think and truly believe that golf and golfers promote some sort of human values that symbolize such characteristics as honesty, hard work, dedication, responsibility, respect for the other guy, playing by the rules,” he said. “Kinda something we do in the game in golf.”
On hand for the ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda was Palmer’s friend and rival Jack Nicklaus. Together, they ushered in golf’s modern age and its explosion of purse money and television exposure; they also played the game the way it was meant to be played. I would argue that they constitute one half of golf’s Mount Rushmore.