Arnold Palmer: Golfer & Coast Guardsman

Arnold Palmer

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

To golfers around the world he is known simply as “The King.” To those who know him best he goes by Arnie. But, from 1951 to 1953 Arnold Daniel Palmer answered to “recruit” and “yeoman.” Long before Arnold Palmer was a household name and the first millionaire in the history of professional golf, he was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. As Palmer celebrates his 83rd birthday today, we share with you the story of his three years of Coast Guard service.

Palmer joined the Coast Guard at a crossroads in his life. Already well regarded as an amateur golfer at Wake Forest University, a personal tragedy led him to rethink his priorities.

“I was at Wake Forest for three and a half years and my roommate got killed in an automobile accident and I was pretty distraught over that and decided that I needed to get away,” recalls Palmer in an interview with U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary historian Richard A. Stephenson. “I joined the Coast Guard.”

Palmer credits his service with helping him at a time when his life needed some direction and has been vocal about wishing more young Americans would join the military.

“The knowledge that I gained, the maturity that I gained in the Coast Guard was unbelievable. It matured me,” said Palmer. “It made me a better person for the world and I believe that in my own right. The military isn’t just restrictions and military duties. It’s learning and it’s very important that young people have that opportunity to learn and to know themselves a little better and I think the military helps put that in the right perspective.”

Following recruit training at Cape May, Palmer’s first assignment was to stay at the training center as a physical fitness and self-defense instructor. About a year later he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was a yeoman for the commander of the 9th Coast Guard District Auxiliary (now the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve) and ultimately for Rear Adm. Roy L. Raney, 9th Coast Guard District commander.

“I became a photographer and I did the identifications for all the Coast Guardsmen in the 9th Coast Guard District,” said Palmer. “I traveled to all the stations and did photos and then took those all back to headquarters and did the identifications cards for all the Coast Guard personnel in the 9th district.”

Palmer enjoyed the discipline of military life but particularly enjoyed having many of his weekends off to continue to compete in golf tournaments with the blessing of Raney who received regular golf lessons from Palmer while they served together.

Arnold Palmer.

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Raney was so taken with Palmer that he recommended the young man pursue a career as a Coast Guard officer.

“My intentions were to eventually get out and play golf and of course my boss, the admiral, had suggested I go to training at the [Coast Guard] Academy and that was fine and I was flattered he wanted me to do that but at the same time that meant an additional enlistment for me and I was primarily ready to get out and get my shot at the PGA Tour.”

The Coast Guard’s loss was the golf world’s gain but Palmer never forgot about his opportunity to serve and continues to follow the exploits of America’s Coast Guard to this day.

“All the things that the Coast Guard did I thought were very exciting and [if I had] stayed longer I probably would have gone into the flying end of the Coast Guard,” said Palmer, a well-known aviation buff who flew himself to tournaments for decades. “And, what they’re doing now if you watch some of the shows that are on television I think that’s specifically one of the reasons I like the Coast Guard so much.”

On behalf of the U.S. Coast Guard and golfers worldwide, happy birthday, Mr. Palmer!

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