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It was 75 years ago when a central Pa. teen beat Arnold Palmer to win PIAA golf title

MIKE HEATON
(Carlisle) Sentinel (TNS)
Arnold Palmer is shown here in 2007.
John Weaver

It was May of 1945 and with 18 holes to go, Arnold Palmer is tied first at the PIAA Golf Championships at State College.

His story has been heard before countless times. Originally from Latrobe, Palmer attended Wake Forest College before enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard. He later entered the 1954 U.S. Amateur in Detroit. His win there helped him make the decision to turn professional.

“The King” then won 62 PGA tour titles which put him fifth for wins all-time, and seven major championships. From his first win on the tour in 1955 at the Canadian Open to his last in 1973 at the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Palmer dominated the PGA Tour. By 1974, he was in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

So, back in 1945, before his legendary pro career, there’s no doubt that after clawing back two strokes to tie for the lead, he’ll take advantage of his booming drive to win, right?

He doesn’t.

Local kid holds off future "King:" John Weaver, the local teen from Camp Hill, wasn’t about to easily give up the lead he earned. He led after the first round and was tied with Palmer after 36 holes were done.

In an article for Harrisburg Magazine in 2007, Weaver described a pivotal moment at a front nine par-3 in the final round at State College. Palmer was known for his powerful drives, but Weaver’s superior iron game and putting gave him the advantage over the future “King."

“My tee shot came to rest on the front left of the three-tiered green,” Weaver said. “Arnold was over the green behind the pin in the rough. I putted up over two levels, into the apron and out, then into the cup for an improbable birdie.”

Weaver specifically remembered Palmer’s reaction: “He just lowered his head and shook it back and forth.”

Palmer struggled with a difficult pitch onto the green and ended up three-putting to finish the hole double-bogey. That three-stroke swing seemed to give Weaver all the momentum he needed to claim victory.

The former Camp Hill student put together rounds of 75, 76 and 72 to take the top spot with a two-stroke lead over Arnold Christenson of Erie Academy. Palmer struggled on the final day, falling to tied third and seven strokes behind Weaver.

War injury: One might think after beating a field of that calibre, Weaver would move on to become professional like Palmer did. Maybe had things turned out differently he would have.

With the U.S. still entangled in World War II — it would end in September — Weaver joined the Maritime Academy a mere month after his state win. Over a year later, Weaver's leg was severely damaged in an accident leaving him in a state where he would likely need his leg amputated.

His parents wanted to save his leg and so he remained in a full leg brace until 1959 until he switched to a brace that came up to his knee. He learned to live with the handicap until his death in 2017 at the age of 89.

Never spoke of disappointment: Michelle Bender, one of two daughters to Weaver, said her father never spoke of his disappointment in not becoming a professional golfer.

"The pain of it was there like the constant pain in his bad leg," she said last week.

Weaver never let the pain stop him from doing what he loved.

"He was a family man and found his happiness in what he had and not what he had lost," she said.

Bender has two brothers, one of which said he remembers their father talking to him about playing in a pro-am tournament a year after getting his leg brace at Tam O’Shanter Golf Course in Armitage.

“He was to hit third off of the first tee and after the first two guys teed off, he released the leg brace so he could swing and have his knee and hips move," Bender said, recounting her brother’s recollection of the story. "He hit a long, amazing drive and the last man who was still to tee off responded with something like, you just became an impossible act to follow."

A standout at West Shore: Weaver claimed seven West Shore Country Club championships, one more than his father, who was part of the group that established and designed West Shore Country Club in Camp Hill.

Those achievements led him to being inducted into the Capital Area Chapter Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, an achievement that Arnold Palmer congratulated in a letter to Weaver 50 years after Weaver's triumph in the state championship.

"Congratulations on your induction into your chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame," the letter read. "Like me, you have obviously enjoyed your lifetime of golf."