Benedictine archabbot was at golf legend's bedside when he died

IMAGE: CNS photo/Hans Deryk, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — Benedictine Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki of St. Vincent’s Archabbey in
Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was with Arnold Palmer when the golfing great died Sept.
25 in Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t
the first time Archabbot Nowicki had visited Palmer that day. Palmer, 87, was
in a hospital awaiting a heart operation scheduled for Sept. 26. “I went to say
a prayer and give him a blessing. About an hour after I’d departed, I got a call”
that Palmer’s health was failing rapidly, the archabbot told Catholic News
Service in a Sept. 26 telephone interview.

though Palmer was a lifelong Presbyterian, he’d had a relationship with St.
Vincent’s spanning more than 50 years, when Archabbot Nowicki himself was in
the high school at the archabbey.

did not let denominational differences deter him. “Arnie sort of appealed to everyone.
There were no barriers, race, color, creed — those were things that never entered
into” his mind, Archabbot Nowicki said. “He was welcoming to everybody and
treated everyone with tremendous warmth and respect.” Palmer came with his wife
on occasion to the archabbey’s 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

remember him coming here on one occasion after winning several of the golf
tournaments early in his career. He was hitting golf balls for the students. By
then he had a fairly good reputation,” Archabbot Nowicki recalled. “He would give
a little demonstration. I remember when he was doing it they put a little trash
pail out in the middle, about 150 yards out, and he was hitting balls out and
he got about five in the tanker,” he chuckled.

first time he invited me over, I told him I didn’t know how to play, so I sent
my prior, Father Albert. But this was after he retired professionally. But he still
played golf, every day at Latrobe Country Club.” When the archabbot saw Palmer again,
he said Palmer told him, “The next time you send someone, send someone who is
as good as your prior. This guy cost me 20 bucks.”

as you know, was competitive and enjoyed playing with good golfers,” Archabbot
Nowicki said.

Rogers (of ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ fame) and Arnie Palmer went to the
same school together. I think they were one year apart. They were very good friends
during his lifetime,” the archabbot told CNS. “Arnie’s father taught Mr. Rogers
how to play golf. … (Rogers) “said that his father taught Arnie better than
he taught him.”

In retirement, Palmer
lived five months of the year in his native Latrobe. Not
only did he and his first wife, Winnie, who died in 1999, lend their name
and their presence to various archabbey events, Winnie Palmer was “very helpful
at keeping Wal-Mart out of our backyard,” Archabbot Nowicki said. Arnold Palmer
also served on the St. Vincent’s College board of directors. In 1996 the college gave Palmer an honorary degree.

Nowicki took up Palmer’s invitation to join him when the golfing legend received
the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. Jack Nicklaus was there and he paid
tribute to Arnie at the service,” the archabbot recalled. “I know Jack had
always been a wonderful friend of Arnie’s, and the two enjoyed each other’s

The archabbot
remembered visiting Palmer at his Bay Hill Golf Club near Orlando, Florida. “He
had given one of our commencement addresses. He talked about the importance of
decorum. He said, ‘That means when you enter a room that you take your hat off.'”
At the club, a man “came into the dining room and had his hat on. Arnie said
very gently to him, ‘Will you please take off your hat?’ He had that respect
for people.”

Palmer learned golf from his father, who was the greenskeeper at the Latrobe Country Club. He attended what was then Wake Forest College on a golf scholarship. He left school and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, serving for three years. In 1954, he won the U.S. Amateur golf tournament; a year later he won the Canadian Open, and his golf career was launched.

Palmer won 95 professional championships, including 62 on the PGA Tour, and seven
major tournaments. He earned $1.6 million in prize money, and another $50
million in golf-related business off the course. He also was awarded the
Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

archabbey will hold a memorial service for Palmer Oct. 4 at the basilica on
the archabbey grounds.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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