Arnold Palmer's legacy: From golf course to hospitals


It's all about brand marketing with athletes.

LeBron James and Tiger Woods embrace the mighty power of the Nike $woosh. Carl Edwards loves Subway subs. Aaron Rodgers will do the discount double-check honoring State Farm Insurance.

Arnold Palmer — who turned 84 this week — lends his name to something a tad more precious than sneakers and subs.

Babies. Kids. Children in distress. Children in danger of dying.

Two fabulous Central Florida icons celebrated a birthday Sept. 10. Mr. Palmer turned 84. The Arnold Palmer Medical Center — two adjoining hospitals just south of downtown Orlando — turned 24.

Fittingly so, it opened Sept. 10, 1989, on Arnie's birthday. Why not? It's his baby.

Way back when, in 1984, Palmer was approached to see if he would lend his name to a local hospital looking to expand its care for infants. He landed in a helicopter on the roof of the Orlando Regional Medical Center, with his late wife, Winnie, to take a tour with a few folks, including John Bozard.

They looked around and saw a place about the size of a large bus, with only six beds in the neonatal unit. "Great people, and love what I saw," Arnie told Bozard, "but we can do better than this for our kids."

That they have.

The hospitals are now among the nation's best. Since 1987, the Arnold Palmer Invitational has raised more than $18 million for the two facilities under the AP brand: The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. And that's just the tournament kitty.

Monday, on the eve of Arnie's birthday, a plane full of local golfers loaded up on a tarmac and headed to Latrobe, Pa., Arnie's hometown, for the inaugural Latrobe Classic. For $2,500 each, they got to spend the day at Arnie's old playground for a round of golf and a few throwback memories. This was the place where Mrs. Fritz once asked Arnie to hit a tee shot across a drainage ditch at the No. 6 hole when he was 6 years old.

"She said, 'Arnie, if you hit my ball over that ditch, I'll give you a nickel,' '' Palmer said. "I was there every time she was."

By the end of the day during the reception, a big check was presented to the Arnold Palmer Medical Center Foundation for $200,000 — with a commitment from JetBlue, The Golf Channel and Bay Hill that will raise that amount to $1 million over the next five years for the neonatal unit.

"That pleases the hell out of me," Palmer said. "I'm not a nurse, I'm not a doctor, but I can at least attract attention sometimes. ... To see those kids who are sick and have them come up to you and tell you how great they are doing, and have the opportunity to be there and be taken care of, is wonderful."

Madeleine Davis was one of those babies. Madeleine suffered two collapsed lungs right after birth but was treated and saved at Arnie's place. Her father Brian, a PGA Tour pro, came along for the ride Monday and auctioned himself off to the highest bidding foursome. It added to a hectic workweek, but he gladly accommodated Arnie's request.

Later in the day, when Arnie thanked him in front of a few folks, Davis said, "How could I not do this? You saved my daughter's life."

Davis had a sister who died 40-odd years ago of the same problems as his daughter. Madeleine is now 5.

"The tour is built on what he did when he was younger," Davis said later. "Obviously Tiger took on the next mantle of bringing the tour on, but the reason we have what we have is because of people like Mr. Palmer.

"From a players' standpoint we owe him a great deal. From a family standpoint, well, we have a joke about it... 'I'll always owe you.' ''

Courtesy of Orlando Sentinel - Read George Diaz's blog at