Less than 24 hours after pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol building and stalled congressional efforts to certify electoral college votes for President-elect Joe Biden, President Donald Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to golfers Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player and the late Babe Zaharias in a closed-door ceremony Thursday.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the nation’s highest civilian honor, is awarded by the president “to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to the White House.
Player and Sorenstam were announced recipients in March 2019, but the ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sorenstam, a 10-time major champion and eight-time LPGA Player of the Year winner, is regarded as one of the best golfers in history. A 2003 Women’s Golf Hall of Fame inductee, her 72 LGPA Tour wins are third-most all-time.
Player won nine major championships including the Masters in 1961, 1974 and 1978 during a professional career that spanned nearly six decades. He became the fifth golfer to win the modern career Grand Slam with his 1965 U.S. Open victory and is the only non-American to win all four majors in a career.
But the retired golfer, who has a villa at the Trump National Doral golf resort in Miami, has also been criticized for views he expressed in his 1966 book “Grand Slam Golf,” in which he espoused support for the policies of former South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who is considered to be the architect of South African apartheid; although he later disavowed those comments in an interview with the Los Angeles Times nearly two decades later in 1987.
“The African may well believe in witchcraft and primitive magic, practise ritual murder and polygamy; his wealth is in cattle,” he wrote. “More money and he will have no sense of parental or individual responsibility, no understanding of reverence for life or the human soul which is the basis of Christian and other civilised societies. A good deal of nonsense is talked of, and indeed thought about ‘segregation’. Segregation of one kind or another is practised everywhere in the world.”
In a 2015 interview with Reuters, Player called for a balanced examination of Trump’s behaviors.
“I would never have said the things that Donald Trump said. I don’t agree with things the way he put it across. He could have been far more diplomatic and more presidential on his points of view,” he said. “. . . He’s done a lot for golf, and he’s done a lot for a lot of people. We mustn’t forget the good that he’s done. Don’t just hammer people, I mean if you look at presidents of the United States of America, a lot of them have not behaved all that well.”
W.L. Pate Jr., president of the Babe Zaharias Foundation, reportedly received the award for Zaharias, who died in 1956.
Zaharias, born Mildred Didrikson, earned the nickname “Babe” because the boys who played baseball with her thought she hit like Babe Ruth. She won 10 major championships including victories at the women’s U.S. Open in 1948, 1950 and 1954, and helped found the LGPA. She also qualified for the 1932 Olympics and won two gold medals and one silver in track and field events.
Trump has awarded 23 Medals of Freedom since he took office, with 14 given to sports figures including NFL Hall-of-Famers Roger Staubach and Alan Page, former wrestler Dan Gable, and former college football coach Lou Holtz.
Four other golfers have been awarded the Medal of Freedom (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Charlie Sifford and Tiger Woods), with Trump presenting the award to Woods in 2019.