Babe Zaharias, Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

January 07, 2021

Babe Didrikson Zaharias won gold medals in the Olympics before taking up golf.


A trio of Hall of Fame golfers—Annika Sorenstam, Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Gary Player—received the Presidential Medal of Freedom as scheduled on Thursday at the White House.

President Donald Trump awarded the medals, considered the United States’ highest civilian honor, a day after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol while Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The ceremony, which had been scheduled prior to Wednesday’s events, was closed to the press.

Sorenstam and Player received their medals in person, while W.L. Pate Jr., president of the Babe Zaharias Foundation, stood in for Zaharias, who died in 1956.

The medal is described as a recognition of “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Only four other golfers have received it: Arnold Palmer (2004), Jack Nicklaus (2005), Charlie Sifford (2014) and Tiger Woods (2019). Trump awarded Woods the medal shortly after he won the 2019 Masters.

The White House announced last March that Sorenstam and Player would receive the honor, but Zaharias was a recent addition.

Sorenstam, 50, dominated women’s golf from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. The Swede won 72 official LPGA Tour titles, including 10 majors, and was named player of the year a record eight times. She stepped away from playing full-time professional golf in 2008 and has since focused on philanthropic and business pursuits.

Zaharias is widely considered one of the finest athletes ever, having won gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw at the 1932 Olympics—all before she took up golf in 1935, at the age of 24. She then became one of the greatest female golfers in history. Like Sorenstam, she won 10 major championships including all three held in 1950. She also holds the distinction as the only woman ever to make a cut in a PGA Tour event, which she did three times.

Known as the “Black Knight” for his penchant for wearing all black, Player was one-third of golf’s “Big Three” alongside Nicklaus and Palmer. The South African is one of five players to complete the career Grand Slam by winning all four men's majors, and he is the only non-American to have done so. He won 160 tournaments worldwide, including nine majors, and since his retirement he has remained an active presence in the game. He has designed more than 400 golf courses worldwide and is the founder of the Player Foundation, which seeks to provide underprivileged children with access to education.

In the wake of what happened on Wednesday in Washington, some questioned whether the ceremony should have taken place. Player’s son, Marc, who has a strained relationship with his father, tweeted his disapproval of the day’s events: “Unbelievable! Tone deaf. In denial. I wish my father would simply & politely decline this.”