Miceli: Enough appeal to Arnold Palmer Invite?

Tiger Woods signs autographs during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Tiger Woods signs autographs during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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4/10/2014 - 4/13/2014

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Arnold Palmer won 62 events on the PGA Tour, including seven major championships, and generally is credited with moving golf into the modern era. He slashed his way to victory after victory in the 1960s with the charisma of JFK and the daring of Clint Eastwood.

Now 50 years later and with the 34th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, “The King” wonders why so many of the young and popular Tour players skipped his event.

“I’m disappointed that they are not here, no question about it,” Palmer said of so many young stars – notably eight of the world’s top 10-ranked players – skipping Bay Hill. “They are the top players on the Tour right now in the positions that they are in, and I am disappointed.”

Palmer stopped playing golf on the PGA Tour in 2004, but his career appearances waned after 1983, and his last victory came in 1973.

The Palmer of old displayed a swashbuckling style that dominated the game in the 1960s, before most of the current Tour players were born. Such 21st-century stars as Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, all absent from Bay Hill, mostly have been exposed to Palmer via TV reruns of golf championships.

It’s possible that the deference and respect for Palmer and his contributions to the game might not be as vivid to the younger players as the older ones.

“I think it’s hard for a lot of the younger guys,” Charles Howell III said of a perceived break between Palmer and the younger generation. “I played with Jack Nicklaus, as well, and I played with Gary Player and Arnold and Tom Watson, and that’s one of the things I really am glad I did. Some of the younger players, if they haven’t played with him, they know him as Arnold Palmer and they’ve seen the highlights, but unless you’ve actually been out there with him and see how he interacts with the gallery and what makes him ‘The King,’ it’s hard to explain it without seeing it.”

Howell, 32, has a history with Palmer, receiving a sponsor exemption to Bay Hill in 2001 and playing with Palmer in the 2000 Shark Shootout, making an ace with Palmer as his partner. The Augusta, Ga., native has played in 12 Bay Hills since.

“If it weren’t for Arnold and Jack, we may not be where we’re at today,” Howell said. “The past generation obviously is what leads into the next, and there’s going to be some kid somewhere some day that probably feels like he needs to play Tiger Woods’ tournament because of what Tiger did. That’s important, because that’s how the game goes and that’s how it grows, and hopefully it’s bigger 20 years from now than it is today.”

The cumulative purses on the PGA Tour equal $279 million in 2012. Compare that with 1955, Palmer’s first season, when Tour purses totaled $782,010 and rookies had to play for six months as an apprentice before they could earn prize money.

Players paid for range balls, and caddies shagged the balls for their players.

Automobiles were supplied only to the top players on a weekly basis, and making the cut didn’t always ensure a payday.

“It’s a bit of a shame,” Ernie Els said of the lack of younger marquee players at Bay Hill this week. “I don’t want to get critical of the guys. I mean, they’ve got their reasons why they’re not playing, but I would love to see Dustin and Rickie and the guys just to honor The King. He’s in his 80s now, and what Tiger has done for our game in their era, that’s what Arnold did for the whole of the game back in the ’50s and ’60s. So they should come and honor him for what he’s done.”

When Palmer and Nicklaus played, the game was much simpler. If an event was on the schedule, players generally showed up. Of course, back then the bigger the purse, the better the likelihood that the top players would attend.

Now with tournaments staged all over the world, appearance fees and multimillion-dollar purses to entice players, scheduling has become more difficult for those players in demand.

Palmer might be a victim of his own success. If not for his popularity in the ’60s and ’70s that drove the game to new heights, Bay Hill and similar invitational events would get a bigger focus. Now, many events overshadow this week in Orlando.

“The invitationals used to be Bay Hill, Hilton Head, Memorial, Colonial; they were a big deal because they were the nicer tournaments,” Davis Love III said. “And like we tell Jack Vickers (founder of The International, a former Tour event) all the time, ‘Everybody caught up with you. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were ahead of the curve, and then everybody caught up with you.’ ”

The week before the Florida Swing, the first of two World Golf Championship events is played. With the WGC tournament at Doral, that makes two WGCs in a three-week span. Two weeks later, it’s Bay Hill, which is just two weeks before the Masters.

The highest-ranked players will play in both WGC events and in recent years have opted to stay in the U.S. to play at Honda, which opens the Florida Swing and is sandwiched between the two WGC events, before going home.

“I think that Arnold’s meant a lot to the game of golf, and I think a lot of players come here and support him because of that,” said Phil Mickelson, the 1997 Bay Hill champ. “But I think first and foremost, each player needs to decide what is the best way for them to perform at the Masters. For some, it’s to play a couple weeks heading in, and some, it’s not. I think we all have to respect whatever they decide.”

When Byron Nelson was alive, players would honor the Hall of Famer by playing in his tournament in Irving, Texas. When Nelson died in 2006, it didn’t take long for players to skip the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Now, the annual mid-May event is just one of many struggling to attract the game’s top stars.

“Byron Nelson used to be a big deal to go to, and that tournament’s hurting now,” Love said. “But you still get a really good field here, still obviously a lot of great players here. But with the international guys, it’s tough to get them to play all the way through to the Masters.”

Only two Americans, No. 5 Steve Stricker and No. 7 Webb Simpson, are among the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Of the world’s top 10 players, only No. 8 Justin Rose, an Englishman who lives in Orlando, and Simpson played Bay Hill.

“I think a lot of the young guys do have good respect for the game, but I don’t know if they do for the history of the game,” Canadian Mike Weir said. “From my perspective and my era, it was when I got on the Tour you wanted to play Jack’s tournament and Arnie’s tournament and I wanted to have lunch with Nick Price and Greg Norman and learn from those guys and talk to those guys. Now I find it’s a little different era.”

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