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Benedictine abbot was at Arnold Palmer’s bedside when he died

Arnold Palmer acknowledging the crowd on the 18th during the Champions Challenge at St Andrews, Fife, in 2015 (PA)

Benedictine Archabbot Douglas Nowicki of St Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, was with Arnold Palmer when the golfing great died on September 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 September 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 September 26 telephone interview.

Even 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.

Palmer did not let denominational differences deter him. “Arnie sort of appealed to everyone. There were no barriers, race, colour, 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 arch abbey’s 7.30 a.m. Sunday Mass.

“I 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.

“The first time he invited me over, I told him I didn’t know how to play, so I sent my prior, Fr 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 the golfer told him, “The next time you send someone, send someone who is as good as your prior. This guy cost me 20 bucks.”

Archabbot Nowicki added: “Arnie, as you know, was competitive and enjoyed playing with good golfers,”

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.

Archabbot 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 company.”

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 US Coast Guard, serving for three years. In 1954, he won the US 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.

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