WASHINGTON -- Arnold Palmer has received many trophies and awards for his prowess on the golf course, but he said Wednesday the two national medals he has received mean the most.
Mr. Palmer, who turned 83 on Monday, received his Congressional Gold Medal at the Capitol on Wednesday in recognition of not only his contributions to the game of golf but also his humanitarianism.
Congress voted to award the medal in 2009, but it has taken three years for the U.S. Mint to design and produce the gold coin depicting Mr. Palmer's image. As the honoree, he had some say over the design but didn't see the finished product until Wednesday.
During a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda, House and Senate leaders presented the medal, which is considered one of the nation's highest expressions of appreciation, matched only by the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Mr. Arnold was awarded eight years ago.
The celebrated golfer and Latrobe native has plenty of other hardware -- PGA tournament trophies, Vardon trophies, wins at the Masters and the U.S. Open, to name a few -- but the two medals give him the most pride. That's because they celebrate more than just his athleticism.
"I like to think I've done a great deal for the game of golf, but I would rather think that my contributions to charity, to the welfare of the people of America -- things like that -- are equally as important as what I've done in golf," Mr. Palmer said in an interview.
On Wednesday, though, a stream of speakers including congressional leaders and fellow golf legend Jack Nicklaus kept bringing their remarks back to the fairway.
They credited him with transforming golf from a country club pastime to a sport accessible to the middle class. He was able to do that because he reached his peak as an athlete just as television was beginning to broadcast golf tournaments, speakers said.
"Arnold Palmer democratized golf, made us think that we, too, could go out and play -- made us think we could do anything, really," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "All we had to do was go out and try."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized Mr. Palmer as a charismatic, generous, tenacious golfer and humanitarian who never gave up.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Mr. Palmer "not only transformed the game of golf; he transformed lives, donating his time and resources over the years to literally countless good causes."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said Mr. Palmer represented the best of Pennsylvania and that he has continually given back to his hometown of Latrobe.
The seven-time major champion is credited with helping to found The Golf Channel, negotiating a deal to build China's first course and for contributing to health causes through the establishment of the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Fla.; the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando; the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.; and UPMC's Arnold Palmer Pavilion at Mountain View Medical Park.
He also is chairman of the Latrobe Hospital Foundation and is active in many other charities in Latrobe and Orlando.
In brief remarks in the rotunda, Mr. Palmer said playing golf instilled him with good character.
"Golf and golfers promote some sort of human values that symbolize so many Americans: such characteristics as honesty, hard work, dedication, responsibility, respect for the other guy [and] playing by the rules. Kind of something we do in the game of golf," he told a crowd of about 150.
The medal honors contributions to American history and culture as well as major achievements in the recipient's field. It's been awarded to war heroes, explorers, actors, authors, entertainers and others, including Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh; Roberto Clemente, the Pirates outfielder; and Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff during World War II and a Uniontown native, and Gen. Matthew C. Ridgway, the Korean War commander who retired to Fox Chapel. Mr. Palmer is the second golfer to receive the honor; the first was Byron Nelson.
Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 703-996-9292.