By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Arnold Palmer became the sixth athlete to earn a Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony on Wednesday where the golfing great and humanitarian made light of the divided U.S. lawmakers who gave him the award.
Congress bestowed Palmer, 83, with its highest civilian award in "recognition of his service to the country in promoting excellence and good sportsmanship".
To be sure, this, one of the most unpopular and unproductive congresses in history, came together to salute this king of swing.
"I'm particularly proud of anything that the House and Senate agree on," said Palmer, drawing laughter and applause from a U.S. Capitol crowd of a few hundred people, including often warring Democratic and Republican leaders.
A winner of more than 80 professional tournaments worldwide, including seven major championships, the charismatic Palmer helped popularize the game of golf over a half century ago with a hard-charging style that drew his own "Arnie's Army" of fans.
Along the way, he helped build more than 300 golf courses as well as, in Florida, the Arnold Palmer Medical Center, which includes two hospitals for women and children, one named for him and the other for his late wife, Winnie.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Palmer "an icon of American sports and a success in all of his endeavors - a humanitarian, a businessman, a philanthropist."
House Speaker John Boehner, Congress's top Republican and one of its most avid golfers, said Palmer, a product of humble roots, changed what had been long been a game for the elite.
"Arnold Palmer democratized golf," Boehner said. "(He) made us think that we, too, could go out and play, made us think we could really do anything. All we had to do was go out and try."
Another golfing great, Jack Nicklaus, who had been one of Palmer's chief rivals, joined the award ceremony, saying, "He's a golf icon to the world - a good friend to me."
Palmer, in brief remarks, said: "I'm very humbled. Thank you."
The Congressional Gold Medal dates back to 1776. Its first recipient was the first president of the United States, George Washington.
Wednesday's award ceremony was held in the Capitol Rotunda near statues of three presidents who Palmer had golfed with - Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
Palmer, in remembering some of his rounds with Eisenhower, said: "We enjoyed a little golf, and a lot of fun."
The only other athletes to receive the award are baseball's Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson, Olympian Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Lewis and golfer Byron Nelson.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)