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Arnold Palmer: The King of Wake

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Arnold Palmer: The King of Wake

Arnold Palmer attended Wake Forest by happenstance, but his impact on the school and its golf program is legendary

    Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour

    Billy Andrade was the top-ranked junior golfer in the United States in 1981. Not surprisingly, the Bristol, Rhode Island, native was regarded as a prize catch by the upper echelon of college golf programs.

    Florida, Texas and North Carolina were among the schools vying for his services. But Andrade chose Wake Forest, a small, private university located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for his first recruiting trip.

    While he was on campus, Jesse Haddock -- then the head coach of the Demon Deacons -- had some interesting news for Andrade. If he came to Wake Forest, Andrade would be the recipient of the Arnold Palmer Scholarship.

    "That was my first and last recruiting trip," Andrade recalls.

    The scholarship money was certainly a plus, although teenagers don't always see dollar signs like their parents do. Wake Forest, being a private institution, can be costly – a current year's tuition is in the $62,000-range.

    But what actually attracted Andrade, who would play on a NCAA title team in 1986, was the name on the scholarship.

    "It bonded a relationship with Arnold Palmer that has lasted my whole life," he says.

    Andrade, now 52, remembers Palmer visiting Wake and talking to the golf team during his freshman year. The legendary golfer pulled Andrade aside because he wanted to get to know the player who had received his scholarship.

    "That meant the world to be a part of his boys, so to speak," Andrade says.

    Every time Andrade won a tournament -- he has four PGA TOUR and three PGA TOUR Champions wins -- Palmer sent a letter of congratulations. Andrade has saved them all.

    Palmer remains the No. 1 in the contact list on Andrade's cell phone, and he'll jokingly tell you that they have butt-dialed each other more than once. Andrade remembers hanging up his jacket once, years ago, when he was still getting used to a new Blackberry, and hearing Palmer's voice coming out of a pocket, "Billy, Billy, where are you?"

    Andrade, who with his good friend Brad Faxon runs a two-day charity event in Rhode Island each year, credits Palmer with teaching him about giving back. And it started with the scholarship he received.

    "He's been such a great role model for me and so many other professionals who have been around him," Andrade said.

    Palmer likely never would have ended up at Wake Forest had it not been for his best friend, Buddy Worsham, who accepted a golf scholarship at the school.

    Worsham’s older brother Lew had just won the 1947 U.S. Open, and Buddy was a top-flight recruit, especially for Wake Forest, which was not yet a golf powerhouse.

    When Worsham mentioned his school of choice, Palmer asked where it was located. Worsham replied that it was in North Carolina. Palmer then had one more question.

    “Do you think I could get on the team?”

    So Buddy put in a call to Jim Weaver, Wake's athletic director who would go on to become the first commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Buddy said he’d like to bring his friend down to join the team. Assured that Palmer could play golf, Weaver gave the OK.

    Palmer wasted little time putting Wake Forest golf on the map.

    He won one Southern Conference title, the first Atlantic Coast Conference individual crown, two NCAA championships and the 1954 U.S. Amateur before turning pro and turning the golf world upside down.

    During his commencement address to Wake Forest graduates in 2005, Palmer recalled his college days with Worsham. “He got on my case from time to time about tending to studies and not spending all my time hitting golf balls. We were almost like brothers.”

    So it’s no surprise that Palmer was filled with grief when Worsham was killed in an automobile accident on the way home from a college dance in 1950. Palmer, who had been too tired to go to the party with his friend, actually was the one who had to go and identify the body.

    "That night I first had the idea of a Buddy Worsham Scholarship Fund," Palmer told the Norfolk (Virginia) Ledger-Star in 1978. "But I didn't have any money."

    He also didn’t feel like he could continue attending Wake Forest at that time. So he signed up for a three-year hitch in the Coast Guard before returning to school for one more semester. He was still short of credits to graduate, though, and the allure of becoming a professional golfer could not be ignored.

    He never did graduate from the school, but in 1970, he was conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree. “I have always regretted that I didn’t get that diploma,” Palmer said in his commencement address. “I know that many others encounter such tragedies during their college years and face similar decisions to the one I had to make.”

    Though he didn’t have enough money to establish the scholarship in Buddy’s honor when he began his career, Palmer was finally able to make that dream reality in the 1960s. Once the scholarship in his own name was established, it linked Arnie and Buddy in a way that neither probably envisioned during their college days together.

    "I would think if you asked him, the Buddy Worsham is the most prestigious scholarship at Wake Forest," says current Wake golf coach Jerry Haas.

    Like his brother Jay and nephew Bill, Haas played at Wake Forest. He started his playing career on the Arnold Palmer Scholarship before switching to the Buddy Worsham Scholarship when Haddock started recruiting Andrade.

    "When Coach Haddock asked me to switch ... I wasn't mad, I was honored because I knew the story and I knew the history," Haas recalls.

    The Buddy Worsham and Arnold Palmer scholarships are among eight now funded by, or in honor of, former Deacons. As a result, the golf program is fully endowed and self-sustaining.

    Like Andrade, Webb Simpson wanted the Arnold Palmer Scholarship. The seven-time major champion was a "huge" hero of Simpson's even as he was growing up a UNC fan in Raleigh, North Carolina, about two hours from the Wake campus.

    "Not only in his game but just the way he was," Simpson said. "He created such a buzz for Wake Forest golf that carried into the '70s and '80s and even the '90s, really. So it was a big deal.

    "I had it as the coveted No. 1 scholarship that I wanted in all the USA."

    Simpson first met Palmer when he was 16 and a friend of his father's took him to the Wake Forest pro-am. That's about the time he switched allegiances from the Tar Heels, too.

    "I think about it often, honestly," the 2012 U.S. Open champ said. "I think if there was a Jack Nicklaus scholarship and a Tiger Woods scholarship ... those three would be the biggest scholarships in terms of honor that you would want.

    "Arnold's is arguably the No. 1 scholarship. The thing that made it so special at Wake is that it's such a good school academically I knew if golf didn't work out for me I was going to have a great education. I knew that was a big deal to Arnold."

    Kyle Reifers, another former Deacon golfer, calls the 86-year-old a "pioneer" and a "trendsetter." One of his fondest memories is the day he spent at Palmer's Latrobe, Pennsylvania, home with his father and having the host show him photos of all the Presidents with whom he played golf.

    "And I was pretty lucky my first year on TOUR and he gave me a sponsor's exemption," Reifers said. "I was playing with Ernie Els and Mr. Palmer was sitting in a cart and I hit one right down the middle of the fairway and he gave me the thumb's up.

    "It's just one of those things, on Sunday, playing with Ernie, that I'll never forget. My time with him has been very kind of memorable and you kind of get that special feeling whenever you're around him."

    This week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, Reifers and his caddy, Dustin Groves, who also played golf at Wake, plan to wear special hats with Palmer’s trademark umbrella on them. Reifers also plans to visit the Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando while he is there.

    "(I thought I'd) maybe give a little bit of energy back to Mr. Palmer because I know he's not doing as well as he would like," Reifers said. "Hopefully, I'll get to spend a little time with him and he'll get a kick out of the hats."

    The Wake Forest golf program has produced more than its share of major champions -- Simpson, Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins, among them -- as well as won 18 ACC titles and three NCAA crowns. But Palmer was the genesis, and his legacy will live on in perpetuity.

    NCAA rules prevent Palmer from engaging in the recruiting process like was the case years ago when he and another living legend, Gary Player, went with Haddock to Eddie Pearce’s Florida home to deliver a letter of intent for the future Deacon All-American to sign. He can't write letters to prospective players on Haas' behalf, either -- although he does send one of congratulations after the recipient has signed on the dotted line.

    "And he follows it," Haas says. "He's very interested and he's excited when we do well and excited for that particular kid who's on his scholarship.

    "Let's face it, (his last win was in 1973) and here we are 43 years later and he's still an icon in golf, still making incredible amounts of money and he's still one of the most revered golfers and men out there."

    So it's likely safe to say the Deacon golf program wouldn't be the same had Worsham not brought his best friend with him to Wake Forest.

    "It wouldn't have the cachet of Arnold Palmer and all he's done here," Andrade says. "Coach Haddock went to school with him but it all started with Arnold. If he hadn't gone to Wake Forest, does Coach Haddock become the coach? Does all the rest of this happen? It's a great question. I'd say probably not."

    Reifers agreed.

    "Not even close," he said. "We've been very fortunate to have a lot of great players come out of there but there's no doubt about it. When you say Mr. Palmer went there, it's right up there like Ohio State, Jack Nicklaus. It's synonymous. I think without a doubt he's been great for the program."

    And extremely generous. In addition to the scholarships he supports, the 86-year-old funded Palmer Residence Hall, which was once the athletic dorm, as well as the Arnold Palmer Golf Complex, where a statue of the man himself welcomes all visitors and there will be a trophy case bearing his name.

    "He was incredibly kind for the Arnold Palmer Golf Complex," Haas says. "He sent his people up here, laid it out and did this and that, did all the work, never saw one bill, took care of everything, and also gave a million dollars."

    During a speech to Wake Forest alums several years ago, Palmer explained why he has been so intent on supporting his alma mater.

    “Jim Weaver made a commitment to me, to play golf at Wake Forest on a full scholarship,” Palmer said. “At the time, I had no idea what that meant. Today, I know what that means.”

    That kind of generosity is just one reason why Haas says Wake Forest is lucky that Palmer chose to go to school there. Most of all, though, anyone who loves golf -- Demon Deacons or not -- is lucky Palmer made the game cool.

    "Nowadays if you know 10 people, nine of them play golf," he says. "It used to be half of them played golf, and now everybody (does). It looks so easy and it looks fun, and I mean, rock stars, basketball players, the average guy, your construction worker, it doesn't matter."

    And if you love golf, you've got to love Arnold Palmer.

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