By Arnold Palmer
A tragic accident that took the life of my closest friend in college led to my three years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early 1950s. Those three years helped shape the rest of my life.
I had enrolled at Wake Forest College in North Carolina in 1947, at the urging of Bud Worsham, a new friend I had made while playing in national junior golf tournaments. We became very close. We were roommates and top players on the Wake Forest golf team. We already had pretty good golf careers, with our senior seasons yet to come. But, my world turned upside down one day in the fall of 1950 when Bud and another friend of ours died in an automobile accident while returning from a dance in Durham.
I was so consumed by grief in the weeks that followed that I just couldn’t remain at Wake Forest. I decided the best way to try to escape the pain was to enlist in the Coast Guard. On a cold winter day in mid-January 1951, I arrived at Cape May, New Jersey, to begin my basic training at boot camp. I had little time for golf during my nine months at Cape May, although I did design and build, almost single-handedly, a nine-hole, pitch-and-putt course between two airport runways on the base. One might call it my first golf course design job.
My next stop was the Coast Guard station in Cleveland (responsible for the five Great Lakes), where I was assigned to the Coast Guard Auxiliary. That, and the fact that the commanding officer, Admiral Rainey, was a golf enthusiast, enabled me to revive my golf game during my remaining time in uniform. I spent the rest of my hitch in Cleveland, except for a brief training period at Yeoman Storekeeping School in Groton, Connecticut, where the admiral sent me after I had declined his offer to attend Officers’ Candidate School.
During that time, I made friends with several good amateur players, who arranged for me to play at Pine Ridge, a local club, with them. I also met and played golf with another enthusiastic golfer, Bill Wehnes, a successful paint manufacturers’ rep, who gave me my first job after I completed my Coast Guard service in early 1954. I then went back to Wake Forest to complete my last semester. The job with Wehnes tided me over until late summer 1954 when I won the U.S. Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit. I turned pro a few months later, married my wife, Winnie, and was off and running on the PGA Tour.
Although it delayed the start of my pro career, I never have had any regrets whatsoever about serving my country those three years in the U.S. Coast Guard.
—Arnold Palmer won 92 golf championships over the course of his career, including the Masters Tournament four times. He learned to play golf when he was four years old in his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
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