Arnold Palmer: a Wake Forest legend

Arnold Palmer quote

A Deacon, naturally

Honoring Palmer

Riley Skinner, Arnold Palmer and Chris Paul

Arnold Palmer (center) poses with two other athletes who starred at Wake Forest: Riley Skinner (left) and Chris Paul.

In a reception on Oct. 16, Wake Forest named its newly renovated golf complex in honor of Palmer. Read more »

Wake Forest has honored Palmer in other ways:

  • Distinguished Alumni Award (1962)
  • Honorary doctor of laws degree (1970)
  • Athletics Hall of Fame (1970)
  • Palmer Residence Hall (1982)
  • Commencement speaker (2005)
  • Honorary Orange Bowl captain (2006)

Palmer has received many other honors, including:

  • Palmer is the only sports person to receive each of the government’s highest honors: Congressional Gold Medal, National Sports Award and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • Palmer was No. 25 on the list of the NCAA’s “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes,” released in 2006.
  • Palmer is a member of many hall of fames, including World Golf, American Golf and PGA.
  • In 1960, he won both the Hickok Professional Athlete of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards.
  • He was named “The Athlete of the Decade” for the 1960s by the Associated Press.

By Tucker Mitchell
Published in Wake Forest Magazine
Fall 2009, celebrating Palmer’s 80th birthday

The “official” version is that it was all just a twist of fate. Wake Forest College had landed a big recruit for what was, at the time, a very small intercollegiate golf program. Buddy Worsham, whose older brother Lew had won the U.S. Open, was coming to Wake Forest on an athletic scholarship.

But before the pact could be finalized, Worsham had one final request. Could a good friend come with him? “Can he play golf?” asked Jim Weaver, the Deacons’ athletic director at the time. As it turns out, Arnold Palmer could.

Palmer turns 80 years old on September 10, and his ties to Wake Forest couldn’t be stronger.

“I have had a love affair with Wake Forest since my undergraduate days, but I didn’t realize until many years later what I had truly learned at Wake Forest, both in and out of the classroom, about the meaning of a productive and meaningful life,” Palmer said in his commencement address to Wake Forest graduates in 2005.

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Arnold Palmer and a trophyWhen he arrived on the Old Campus in the fall of 1948, Palmer simultaneously launched a collegiate golf dynasty and one of the greatest careers the game has ever known. He became Wake Forest’s first individual NCAA champion in 1949, then was the NCAA individual medalist again in 1950. He was the first ACC champion in 1953 and won the U.S. Amateur Championship a year later before turning professional.

Arnold Palmer puttingHis dazzling arc across golf’s tradition-soaked sky was more than a career. It was a full-fledged phenomenon. Yes, he was a terrific player, good enough to win 92 times worldwide in a professional career now in its 55th year (He still plays a tournament or two). He won seven majors, including four Masters, and played on six Ryder Cup teams, captaining two. But what made him unusual is that he wasn’t just a good golfer; he transcended the game to become an iconic figure.

Golf fans and non-golf fans alike were captivated by his aggressive style of play, his gracious personality and his “common touch.” He was also, as it happened, a caring and thoughtful person, whose acts of random kindness were so numerous that at some point they no longer seemed random at all. He came from a working class family and never forgot his roots. People admired and adored him, following him across courses nationwide in throngs so large they were often referred to as “Arnie’s Army.”

Did you know?

Arnold Palmer (left) and his best friend, Buddy Worsham (right), under the watchful eyes of their coach, Johnny Johnston.

Arnold Palmer (left) and his best friend, Buddy Worsham (right), under the watchful eyes of their coach, Johnny Johnston.

  • After the death of close friend “Buddy” Worsham, Palmer withdrew as a senior to spend three years in the Coast Guard before returning to Wake Forest. In 2009, the U.S. Navy honored him with its “Lone Sailor Award.”
  • As a student, Palmer was a member of the Omicron Delta Kappa leadership honor society and the ROTC Cadet Association.
  • Palmer loves aviation and owns a Cessna Citation X.
  • Among his many charitable activities, Palmer served as the honorary national chairman of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation for 20 years.
  • Several relatives of Palmer have followed in his Wake Forest footsteps: nephew Deken Palmer (’99), granddaughter Emily Schneider (’03) and son-in-law Chris Schneider (’03, MSA ’04)
  • Many of the Wake Forest Carillon bells are inscribed, and the B-flat bell is unofficially called the “Arnold Palmer Bell.” His quote reads: “I celebrate the Deacons’ achievements on the playing fields: winning baskets, home runs and touchdowns, long drives and short putts.”

Arnold Palmer at the Orange BowlToday, he is as active as ever, heading up a number of charities and supporting dozens more. But nowhere have his ties been stronger than with his alma mater. He has served on the board of trustees and has been Wake Forest’s unofficial ambassador around the world. When Wake Forest needed someone to face off with Louisville’s honorary captain, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, at the 2007 Orange Bowl, Palmer was the obvious choice (and he even delivered the pre-game pep talk).

He co-chaired the University’s Heritage and Promise campaign in the 1990s and recently teamed with another Wake Forest legend, Ed Wilson (’43), to lead a new initiative to raise scholarship funds for Wake Forest. Palmer himself established the first golf scholarship at Wake Forest in the 1960s, in honor of Buddy Worsham, after his good friend was killed in a car accident while they were both still students. It’s all part of giving back, repaying a debt, as he explained in a speech to alumni last summer.

“Jim Weaver made a commitment to me, to play golf at Wake Forest on a full scholarship — at the time I had no idea what that meant,” he said. “Today, I know what that means.”

Palmer grew up in western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, the son of a golf course superintendent/golf pro named Milfred Palmer. It was Milfred, while working at Latrobe Country Club, who first cut down a set of clubs for 4-year-old Arnold, starting the golfing journey.

Even in bygone days, when names were a little different, Milfred was a tough handle to handle. Thus, early on he picked up a nickname. His friends called him “Deacon.”

Naturally, his son became one.

Tucker Mitchell is a writer living in Huntersville, N.C.

The power of gifts

Brendan Gielow ('10)

‘The Buddy Worsham scholarship has enabled me to attend this great university, and I am in your debt for the opportunity you have given me. It is an honor not only to play on the team that Arnold Palmer played for, but to be here on the scholarship that he created is very special.’ Click the photo to read Gielow’s full speech.

Arnold Palmer has opened doors across the Wake Forest campus:

  • Marvin “Buddy” Worsham scholarship: Palmer endowed Wake Forest’s first golf scholarship in honor of his close friend and teammate Worsham, who was killed in a car accident in 1950.
  • Heritage & Promise Campaign: Palmer tri-chaired the University’s fundraising efforts in the 1990s.
  • Scholarship funds: Palmer recently teamed with Ed Wilson (’43) to lead a new initiative.
  • Board of Trustees: Palmer served on the board from 1983-1997, when he was named a life member. He also is a member of the “Wake Forest Society.”


Arnold Palmer quote