Monday, May 25, 2009

Arnold Palmer's Coast Guard Days


Arnold Palmer in the Coast Guard

(See: Birth of the Birdie, p. 103 Arnold Palmer's Coast Guard Days)

Photo from U.S. Coast Guard.
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Chapter 9 of Birth of the Birdie


Arnold Palmer was a relatively unknown Coast Guard enlisted man when he first visited Atlantic City Country Club, and he credits with those he played with at the time as having an effect on the eventual outcome of his career.

Palmer began playing as a youngster when his father cut off the handle of a wooden club for the three year old to play. He won his first scholastic match in 1943 and the state amateur title as a sophomore. When his friend Buddy Worsham obtained a golf scholarship to Wake Forest, Worsham convinced the coach to give Palmer a scholarship as well. While Palmer was then unknown, Worsham was from a from a family of famous golfers - his brother Lew had won the 1947 U.S. Open and Virgil "Buck" Worsham was a golf professional at the Atlantic City Country Club.

"I worked as the head pro at Atlantic City in 1951 and 1952," recalls Virgil "Buck" Worsham. "I was hired by Mr. Leo Fraser, who I met through Charlie Price, the Editor of Golf World. I came right after Sonny Fraser had died, so I never met Sonny."

According to Worsham, "Atlantic City in 1951 wasn't like what it is now. It was quite unsettled and sparsely populated along Shore Road. We used to get a lot of people from Philadelphia and New York down in the summer time when people swarmed to the beaches and boardwalk. I certainly enjoyed working for Leo Fraser. It was a nice experience, a nice place to be. We had some good players, too."

As Bucky Worsham recalls the situation, "Arnold was a room mate of my brother in college when he was killed in an automobile accident. When he joined the Coast Guard he was stationed in Cape May and he would come up and stay with me and play Atlantic City every few weeks or so. He played in a few tournaments, but he was playing so infrequently he didn't win."

In his introduction to James W. Finegan's Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia, Palmer wrote, "In 1952 and 1953, I was in the Coast Guard, stationed at Cape May, New Jersey, and was able to find time for some golf. Most of it was along the Jersey shore - Atlantic City, Cape May, Wildwood. I played quite a few rounds at Atlantic City Country Club. Leo Fraser was running Atlantic City then - I know that his sons run it today - and sometimes there were some pretty good matches against some of the better amateurs in the area."

"I remember playing against Harry Elwell," Palmer recalled, "and also against Beatle Beirne, who was from Riverton." Palmer also played other local courses, including Ocean City - Somers Point, what is now Greate Bay, where Eddie O'Donnell was the longtime professional. Today O'Donnell works as a teaching professional at the Mays Landing Country Club.

Sure he remembers Arnold Palmer. "I was sitting in the pro shop (at Ocean City - Somers Point) with Harry Elwell," O'Donnell recalls, "and this young man comes in dressed in uniform and asks for the club professional."

"That's me," Eddie replied. Palmer introduced himself. He explained that his father was a club manager at Latrobe Country Club and then looked at O'Donnell sheepishly. "Can I play, Pro?"

O'Donnell asked Palmer if he was an officer.

"No, I'm just an ordinary seaman," he replied.

"Then you can play for free," said O'Donnell.

"If he was an officer, I would have made him pay. I made all the big shots pay," recalled O'Donnell.

Palmer never called Eddie O'Donnell by his name.

It was always, "Pro," in a very respectful manner.

O'Donnell gave Palmer a locker, and he went out on the course for the first time with Harry Elwell, who as club champion, was the best golfer around and a frequent Sonny Fraser Tournament player.

Elwell played with Palmer and O'Donnell, who recalled Palmer as, "a good kid, a good golfer, but nobody ever heard of Arnold Palmer at the time. We played a number of times, and eventually he told us why he joined the Coast Guard."

"Palmer eventually played Atlantic City more than he did Somers Point," said O'Donnell, "and he and Leo Fraser became good friends."

Often seen practicing on the Atlantic City Country Club driving range, Palmer was known locally as a pretty good golfer - one of the many players who shot in the 80s. But that would change.

"He wasn't in college anymore," said O'Donnell, "he as a young amateur who was getting the experience of playing regularly with good professionals and great amateurs, so he must have learned something."

One local player Palmer played Atlantic City Country Club champion Joe Rogers, who later recalled the event to friends, including Stan Dudas. "Palmer could never beat Joe at Atlantic City," Dudas recalls, "because the wind came up and Joe knew how to chip and putt. Joe wasn't a strong player, but he could shoot par and he knew how to play the conditions there. That day he beat Palmer by a stroke or two."

In 1954 Palmer won the U.S. Amateur Championship. "What I liked about him," Eddie O'Donnell said, "was that he could have been the lead man on the Walker Cup team, but he turned that down because he wanted to turn pro."

Years later, while vacationing in Florida, Eddie and his wife Mary O'Donnell watched Palmer play an exhibition match with Sam Snead. As he walked off the green Palmer recognized O'Donnell and stopped to say hello.

"Hey Pro, how you doing?" Palmer said, before he asked about Harry Elwell, who had since passed away.

Palmer then stayed and talked to O'Donnell, holding up the match for awhile, paying his respects to a small link in his life's chain that took him to the pinnacle of what they call the greatest game.

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