(Courtesy: Charlie Clark in the “Our Man in Arlington” column for the Falls Church News Press, originally published March 2014.)
Golf legend Arnold Palmer has an intimate tie to Arlington, though he may not be aware of it.
My scooplet on this topic was achieved after a friend who attends Resurrection Lutheran Church told me Palmer was married at that sanctuary at 6201 Washington Boulevard.
That was news to me, too. A check of the local press for 1954, however, found no coverage of such nuptials, though Palmer was already on the cusp of fame, having won the U.S. Amateur. A perusal of Palmer biographies indicated that he married the former Winnie Walzer in Falls Church.
The mystery took some effort to unlock.
Recall first that the king of the links from Latrobe, Pa., won 92 pro golf tournaments beginning in the mid-1950s, including winning the Masters four times. After the “Arnie’s Army” of on-course fans became a household phrase, Palmer in the 1960s was named “Athlete of the Decade” in an Associated Press poll.
Though retired today at 84 and shepherding various businesses from Orlando, Fla., Palmer is still big – a three-part documentary airs on the Golf Channel in April – and his namesake beverage combining iced tea and lemonade is on grocery shelves near you.
Palmer’s memoirs and biographies dramatize his “lightning struck” love at first sight for Winnie at a Labor Day 1954 tournament in Shawnee, Pa. “The quieter, prettier dark-haired girl caught my eye,” he recalled of the “feisty” 19-year-old student in interior design. “The direction of my life changed” when Arnold sauntered over and invited her to watch him play and attend a dinner-dance. Within days he popped the question.
Sadly, the ex-college sports star at this time was a paint salesman who lacked confidence that Winnie’s father wanted her to marry a “golf bum.” He was right. Palmer would have liked to give her a proper wedding and honeymoon in London after his inevitable first pro earnings came in. Instead, just after Christmas, they eloped – to tie the knot in Falls Church, Palmer recalled.
They honeymooned at a trucker’s motel in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (Arnold spent the next 45 years, until Winnie’s death in 1999, making it up to her.)
The problem with this account is evidence shared with me by Resurrection Lutheran Pastor Scott Ickert. Church records in a secretary’s hand “show that an Arnold Daniel Palmer, age 25, from Youngstown, Pa., and a Winifred Sarah Anne Walzer, age 21, from Coopersburg, Pa., were married at Resurrection on 20 December 1954.” In Arlington.
I ran this by Jane Kovich, a spokeswoman at Arnold Palmer Enterprises in Cleveland. She assured me that Palmer’s aide of four decades is certain Palmer was married Dec. 20, 1954, at Falls Church Presbyterian.
But when I called that church on Broad Street I was assured their minutes from that period reveal no such wedding.
Pastor Ickert and I began speculating. Was there a mix-up over the fact that Resurrection is in the East Falls Church section of Arlington?
I asked Palmer’s staff to check again. I was preparing to leave the mystery open, stating with certainty only that the golfer got hitched somewhere within the circulation zone of the Falls Church News-Press.
But lo, they called me back. Palmer’s sister had confirmed that all the biographies are wrong. The secret wedding of one of history’s top golfers indeed unfolded at Resurrection Lutheran. In Arlington. QED.