Arnold Palmer joining exclusive gold club

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Arnold Palmer has something to do today on his way back home to Latrobe: Stop at the White House and receive a Congressional Gold Medal from President Barack Obama.

In a ceremony at the White House, five years after he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mr. Palmer will be presented a Congressional Gold Medal for promoting excellence and good sportsmanship in golf -- becoming the fifth athlete to receive the honor from Congress.

"I don't know that I've done anything to deserve it, but I accept," Mr. Palmer said yesterday from his office at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla. "That's pretty fantastic."

The Congressional Gold Medal, which is considered the highest expression of national appreciation for achievements and contributions, has been presented to 141 persons or groups since George Washington received the first in 1776.

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who lives in Orlando, sponsored the Senate bill nominating Mr. Palmer for the medal. Mr. Martinez quit the Senate earlier this month. Such bills must be cosponsored by at least two-thirds of the members of the House and 67 in the Senate before even being considered in the respective chambers.

Byron Nelson is the only other golfer to receive the medal. He was honored shortly after his death in 2006. The other athletes are baseball player Jackie Robinson (2003), boxer Joe Louis (1982), Olympic track champion Jesse Owens (1988) and former Pirates baseball star Roberto Clemente (1972). The 1980 U.S. Summer Olympics team also received the medal.

"I thought I would pick it up on my way to Latrobe," Mr. Palmer said, chuckling.

It has been quite a month for Mr. Palmer, a seven-time major champion whose swashbuckling flair popularized the game and brought golf to TV in the 1960s. He turned 80 on Sept. 10 and celebrated the occasion with a two-day birthday party that included golf at Laurel Valley Golf Club with PGA Tour friends and celebrities and throwing out the first pitch at the Pirates game.

In 2004, Mr. Palmer was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by former President George W. Bush. Only four other athletes have received the award, which was first introduced in 1945 -- tennis player Arthur Ashe, baseball great Hank Aaron, boxer Muhammad Ali and golfer Jack Nicklaus.

Mr. Palmer becomes the only sports person to receive each of the government's highest honors.

"It's pretty good stuff," he said. "Quite overwhelming."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 1, 2009) One of the athletes to receive the Congressional Gold Medal was baseball player Jackie Robinson. An incorrect sport was listed for him in this story about golfer Arnold Palmer getting the honor as originally published Sept. 30, 2009.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at


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