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Arnold Palmer becomes sixth athlete to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal

By Stephen Hennessey

After amassing countless accolades on the golf course during his storied career, Arnold Palmer joined a Mount Rushmore of American heroes, including George Washington and Neil Armstrong, when he was honored for his far-reaching lifetime contributions on Wednesday.

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"He didn't set out to change the game. But he did. Arnold Palmer democratized golf. And made us think that we too could go out and play, and made us believe we could do anything really. All we had to do was go out and try," said Speaker of the House John Boehner, one of a number of politicians who helped honor Palmer in a cermony in the Rotunda of the Capitol building.

"You've struck our hearts and our minds, and today your government and fellow citizens are striking the Gold Medal for you."

Palmer became the sixth athlete to be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, "the highest honor that can be bestowed upon any living citizen," following the iconic Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates, track and field Olympic champion Jesse Owens, Brooklyn Dodger pioneer Jackie Robinson, boxing legend Joe Louis and fellow golfer Byron Nelson.

"It's interesting that two of the six [recipients of the honor] have been golfers," Palmer said in a short acceptance speech that capped the ceremony. "I like to truly believe that golfers promote some sort of human value that symbolizes so many Americans, such as characteristics of honesty, hard work, dedication, responsibility, and respect for the other guy."

Related: Golf + Politics, A Delicate Dance.

Jack Nicklaus, a competitor of Palmer's on the course and later in business and golf design, joined in honoring his close friend, with a heartfelt speech built around the theme of "the Arnold Palmer I'll never forget."

Nicklaus, in tears toward the end of the speech, recounted the now-famous first time he watched Palmer hit a ball at age 14, standing and watching in awe at Sylvania C.C. outside Toledo, Ohio as Palmer hit "piercing long irons into the rain," on the driving range before the 1954 Ohio Amateur Championship.

The Latrobe, Pa., native joked he was "particularly proud of anything the House and the Senate could agree upon."

Palmer's numerous charitible contributions most notably include the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center in California and Arnie's Army.

Palmer also recalled speaking in Washington, D.C., in 1990, on the anniversary of the birth of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who Arnie played "a little golf and had a lot of fun" with during Eisenhower's later years.

Palmer concluded his speech by delivering a quote in a grateful fashion that a kid from a working-class family in Western Pennsylvania would:

"I hope I can thank you properly and tell you how much it means to me to be here to accept this award. I'm very humbled, thank you very much."

Related: Arnold Palmer in his Prime, from Tom Callahan

Some other memorable quotes from the ceremony, in which Speaker of the House John Boehner joined Nicklaus in fighting back tears at the end:

"Arnie, your tireless efforts to save lives, not just your short game, make you an immortal." ~Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

"Arnold embodied the hard-working spirit of America, and he played a game we all could try to be good at." ~Nicklaus

"Arnold Palmer is here today because throughout his life he's been a model of integrity, passion and commitment. These are the attributes of a great golfer, and a great American. That refusal to quit and to never give up and that 'give him hell spirit' is why people always flocked to watch him. And he's repays in time in gestures as humble as a handshake, and as lasting as helping the community. ~Boehner

"We're here today to honor a legend. A giant for golfers around the world. It wasn't just about winning golf tournaments, it was about being a role model and giving back to the community." ~California Congressman Joe Baca



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