03/25/2015

Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus have a lot in common. They rank as three of the greatest golfers of all time and tops of their respective eras. Winning is synonymous with their names, all of which hold reverence.

Lord Byron. Arnie or The King. The Golden Bear.

But as much as the men were made famous for their performances on the course, they also built sterling reputations of it with qualities of sportsmanship, respect, and community service.

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Now the trio holds another distinction in common. On Tuesday, Nicklaus received the Congressional Gold Medal, joining Palmer and Nelson as the only golfers to be awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor. Just seven athletes in total have ever received the award.

Nicklaus was recognized for his exceptional golf career–18 majors, 19 runner up finishes–as well as his charitable work. He has raised millions of dollars for children’s health care and has devoted countless hours to servicemen both active and retired.
In his speech, Nicklaus, as always, effused humility. He thanked 30 family members in total, none more special than his wife Barbara.

“Were it not for Barbara, I would have been just another golfer,” Nicklaus said. “People have asked me to quantify Barbara’s importance in my career. I’d have to say she’s responsible for at least 15 major championships. I’ll give myself credit for three.”

The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to people “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”

Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Nicklaus won in 2005, it is the highest civilian honor. Palmer received his medal in 2009, Nelson posthumously in 2006. The Gold Medal has been handed out since 1776.

Given the current state of the game, it could be long time before we see another golfer so honored. Tiger Woods inspired awe at his heights, but couldn’t match Nelson, Palmer, or Nicklaus in terms of widespread appeal.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate that way. The trio of medal-winners are the three great gentlemen of golf. Now the United States officially recognizes them as such.