LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Arnold Palmer received heartfelt wishes and glowing accolades from the golfing world while celebrating his 80th birthday on Thursday.
The U.S. Senate passed legislation that the Congressional Gold Medal would be awarded to Palmer for his service to the nation in promoting excellence and good sportsmanship in golf.
Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, members of the so-called Big Three with Palmer, paid tribute to their long-time rival while world number one Tiger Woods was among several contemporary players to praise his significant impact on the modern game.
Seven times major champion Palmer, affectionately knwon as ‘The King’, won 62 PGA Tour titles in his illustrious career but his influence extended far beyond tournament victories.
With his swashbuckling style, prodigious length off the tee, bold putting and affection for the fans, he did more than any player to popularize the game with the advent of television.
“With his charisma, with his personality in conjunction with TV, it was just the perfect symbiotic growth,” Woods, a winner of 14 major titles, said.
“You finally have someone who has this charisma and they’re capturing it on TV for the very first time. Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold.”
Under the heading ‘Happy 80th Birthday Arnold Palmer’, Nicklaus spoke on his website (www.micklaus.com) about a six-decade friendship with his fellow American.
“Arnold became a friend to me when I first came on tour,” the 18-times major winner said. “We became very close and our wives became very close. We played a lot of team championships together and we had a lot of fun.
“Through those years, yes, we had a rivalry but we never had a rivalry when we were off the golf course.”
As a fan favorite, the charismatic Palmer had no peers and always went to great lengths to ensure every person waiting in line ended up with a cherished autograph.
“He’s never, ever shied away, said no, not signed something,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement.
“In all those respects, he’s the best I’ve ever seen — by a pretty big margin. It’s just part of his DNA. That’s just the way he is,” added Finchem, whose organization devoted a whole section of its website (www.pgatour.com) to Palmer.
Player praised Palmer for always setting the right example.
“Arnold and I grew up and played golf throughout our careers together,” the 74-year-old South African said. “We were fierce competitors against each other, but obviously we had great respect and great affection.
“He’s been a wonderful role model to young people and to everybody for that matter, not only in the United States but in the entire world. He’s been a great ambassador.”
Woods recalled the moment when he first met Palmer, as a 15-year-old competing in the U.S. junior championship at the Palmer-owned Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Florida.
“He was the keynote speaker so I got a chance to meet him and just say briefly ‘hi’, and that was it,” he said. “It was quite an honor.
“He didn’t know me from Adam, but once I started winning a few tournaments and I got a chance to play in the majors as an amateur, got a chance to play with him a few times, that has been certainly one of the highlights of my life.”
Palmer, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Tuesday before a Pittsburgh Pirates game, celebrated his 80th birthday in appropriate fashion by playing golf with friends.
Editing by Ken Ferris