50 Years Since Arnie's Charge in L.A.

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On this day, January 7, an American icon unleashed one of his patented final-day charges to win the Los Angeles Open.

The year was 1963, and the scene was the 11th hole at Rancho Park Golf Course. With his good looks, humble beginnings, easy accessibility, and derring-do style of play, Arnold Palmer was a Southern California crowd favorite. But he’d never finished better than 10th in the L.A. Open, and on the last day of the tourney the groans were audible as he hit his ball over the 11th green.

Palmer did not panic, despite finishing the hole with what he later smilingly called “an easy six.” He merely birdied the 12th hole with a 25-foot putt, drove nearly 375 yards to the foot of the green on the 16th, hit a 50-foot chip shot into the hold on the 17th, and closed out with a par for a last-day score of 66. “Arnie’s Army” was delirious.

They still are, really. The man is 83 now, and has branched into many endeavors, writing books, getting congressional Republicans and Democrats to the same events, healing the sick and the lame. I’m not kidding about that, a point we will revisit in a moment. 

The game of golf once had a reputation as a pastime for the idle rich. In truth, there were always working-class champions in the sport, but it was the arrival of a young man whose father had been a groundskeeper at Pennsylvania’s Latrobe Country Club – an arrival that coincided with the advent of increased television sports coverage – that helped make golf accessible to the masses.

Legendary sports broadcaster Vin Scully explained it this way: “In a sport that was high society, Arnold Palmer made it ‘High Noon.’” Arnie’s fans included those born to the most modest circumstances, and those to whom a country club was their natural milieu. Cab drivers loved Arnold Palmer; so did presidents.

In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower phoned his friend Clifford Roberts, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, and asked if he could play a round of golf with the winner of that year’s Masters Tournament. Roberts said he’d arrange it. The winner turned out to be Arnold Palmer, who was flattered by the request, and immediately agreed to it.

It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between Ike and “the King.” Eisenhower golfed with Palmer, confided in him, and showed up at his California home to stay a weekend after leaving the presidency. Ike also asked to see Palmer and his wife while he was dying at Walter Reed hospital, and in 1990 Palmer was asked to address a joint session of Congress on the occasion of the Eisenhower centennial.

The 1958 meeting between them also launched something of a presidential custom: Other presidents would ask to play golf with Palmer, including Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton (both during and after his presidency), and George W. Bush.

Palmer once played a few of holes with Ronald Reagan in Palm Springs, and was supposed to play a round with John F. Kennedy there, too, but JFK had to cancel when his bad back flared up. Despite chronic pain, Kennedy had a graceful golf swing. But he wanted to be better, and in 1963, the president had his golf game filmed. Kennedy planned to show it to Palmer at the White House after he returned from a November trip to Dallas.

In 2004, Arnie played his last Masters Tournament, marking his 50th consecutive appearance in Augusta. That same year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.

“For all who love the game of golf … there has never been a sight in the game quite like Arnold Palmer walking down the fairway toward the 18th green,” Bush said that day. “For more than 50 years, over thousands of miles of fairway, and in 92 professional championships, Arnold has given his all, playing with style and a daring that changed the game of golf. He drew millions of fans, and every big crowd we see at a golf tournament today started with ‘Arnie's Army.’”

Five years later, an even more rarefied honor was bestowed on Palmer: the Congressional Gold Medal. Only a handful of athletes have won the award, which has been given to the likes of George Washington, the Wright Brothers, John J. Pershing, Thomas Edison, Robert Frost, Jonas Salk, and Winston Churchill.

Perhaps even more remarkable, it takes a two-thirds majority of the members of the House and Senate -- quite an accomplishment in itself these days -- along with the signature of the president. Palmer’s gold medal proclamation was signed by President Obama in 2009, and presented to him four months ago – by both Republicans and Democrats.

At an emotional presentation in the Capitol Rotunda, House Speaker John Boehner recounted how he and Palmer putted on a practice green at Pebble Beach while discussing how their fathers’ experiences had shaped their own lives.

“Here we were standing in one of the most venerable places in golf. We weren’t there talking about golf,” Boehner recalled. “We cried our eyes out.”

Boehner, who also hailed from humble beginnings, spoke to the King’s hold on golf – and America. “Arnold Palmer democratized golf, made us think that we too could go out and play, made us think that we could really do anything,” Boehner added. “All we had to do was to go out and try.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Boehner’s predecessor, called Palmer “an icon of American sports” who “demonstrated sportsmanship, courtesy, and friendship to fans and competitors alike.” Pointing to the most famous and accomplished of those rivals, she added, “What better statement than to have Jack Nicklaus here to testify to that?”

“He’s a golf icon to the world,” Jack Nicklaus said while briefly choking up, “and a good friend to me.”

It is well known in golfing circles that Palmer, after he’d made his money, purchased the country club in Latrobe that gave him his start. But more important, after serving as the honorary chairman of the March of Dimes for two decades, Palmer founded the Latrobe Area Hospital Charitable Foundation in his western Pennsylvania hometown.

For more than 25 years, Palmer has also lived half the year in Florida. There, he raised money for the founding of the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in the heart of Orlando, along with a twin facility, the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.

On the occasion of Palmer’s 80th birthday, Bill Clinton and both former presidents named Bush filmed a video tribute.

Clinton told Palmer that playing golf with him was one of the highlights of his presidency – and post-presidency – describing Arnie as “a fierce competitor and a true gentleman, on and off the green,” and a man whose contributions to the country “will never be forgotten.”

“As he marched down the fairway with skill and style, countless Americans picked up a golf club for the first time,” recalled George W. Bush. “One of them was me.”

Bush 43 also lauded Palmer’s medical foundation, conservation programs, and efforts to foster youth golf, and then told a variation of an old golf joke: “Arnie, you’d be pleased to know that I shot my age the other day. Then, I hit my tee shot on the 13th hole.”

The three presidential amigos’ video ended with a tribute from George W. Bush’s parents, George and Barbara. “You’ve given so much, not just to the game of golf,” Bush 41 said, “but to those in need of medicine. You’re the best.”

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