Sang-Moon Bae, Arnold Palmer, Nelson, and Trevino All Served
As we watch our favorite sports stars through time, it is interesting to make note of their accomplishments along the way. However, we tend to think of them as specializing in one arena from start to finish, especially our golfers. They play as teenage wunderkinds, they attach themselves to a collegiate program, dazzle the NCAA crowd for a few years, then emerge onto the tour, appearing as the fresh new face of the Masters in a year or so.
As for service in the military, we are far less aware of a golfer’s past as we are with athletes from other sports. As an example, Roger Staubach, star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and went off to fulfill his two-year obligation before filling the end zone with TD passes in Texas. The story of the tragic loss of Pat Tillman is embedded in the American DNA of recent memory.
I was reminded of the question when I read about Sang-Moon Bae, Korean golfer, and his upcoming obligation to serve in the South Korean armed forces, rather than play the Masters this year, for which he has qualified. Staring across the border at North Korea, South officials apparently deemed his dream of playing in the big one as relatively unimportant in the scheme of things, and everyone from eighteen to thirty-five must do it. Bae will report for duty, Masters or no Masters, or face criminal charges.
Depending on the country and the situation, putting one’s career on hold is a fact of life when one qualifies, or is required, to serve in the military. Boxers like Joe Louis and others have been inducted with the idea of primarily entertaining with exhibition matches, but a golf exhibition might come off a little impractical and dainty for a military athletic demonstration – but then again, maybe not. Craig Stadler seems to enjoy them very much.
We have seen articles about the movie stars of the Second World War and Korean War eras, and the ways in which they served, but to date, I am unaware of what most of the famous golfers of my childhood were doing. I know that Nelson and Trevino served, but was surprised to see that Arnold Palmer, for two years in the early 50s, spend more time on a dock or a ship than he did on the course, eager as he was to get out there and make things happen in the golf world.
Check out the bell-bottoms and the snowflake white ensemble, and see if the photo of Arnie really looks like Arnie. Yes, between ’51 and ’53, the now 85-year-old Palmer was a yeoman in the United States Coast Guard, an experience he values highly to this day, crediting the experience with much of the maturity he gained when he needed it. It is also interesting that during those years, Palmer became a photographer, and took the pictures of countless colleagues for identification purposes. For the Coast Guard’s part, they wanted him to stay and become an officer, but the star out of Wake Forest was too eager to set the golf world on fire, which is precisely what he did, in addition to becoming a masterful businessman and folk hero.
My own experience was as a summer dock-builder for the Coast Guard, and I could see what Palmer talking about. Although I hate to dampen the enthusiasm, I remember that being on the dock at 5 am was flat-out horrible,and that the work was dangerous and dirty. The only resemblance I have to the star from Latrobe was that I couldn’t wait to get out of overalls and get to the golf course. From that point on? No similarity whatsoever.
The military lives of the great touring golfers would make an interesting project, and I might just visit a few others to see what their experiences were. For Sang-Moon Bae, I will keep him in my thoughts as he takes up his place in a tense and dangerous situation, and welcome his return a couple of Masters down the road.