ORLANDO, Fla. – With Tiger Woods absent from the marquee this week at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, it’s debatable who the tournament’s biggest draw becomes. It could be the stylish Adam Scott, the world No. 2, or Henrik Stenson, ranked third and the hottest golfer on the planet at the end of 2013.
Then again, it’s very likely a graying octogenerian who won’t hit a single ball this week, and whose name just happens to be emblazoned on the top of the tournament.
Arnold Palmer is 84 now, a legend in winter, but he sure hasn’t slowed down all that much. This week, he’s a tournament host, dinner speaker, autograph signer, picture taker, spokesman, mentor and even chief agronomist (“We’re in good shape) and meteorologist (“Weather looks like it’s going to be great”). And oh, yeah, he’s a doting grandfather, too. Grandson Sam Saunders is back in the field on a sponsor invitation.
At Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer is omnipotent. This, after all, is The Place That Arnie Built, where he has made his winter home for nearly five decades. In golf, there’s still only one king, and this is his castle.
“He’s 84, and he’s still so vital,” said Larry Rinker, a former PGA Tour member who has made his home in Orlando for years and is a former Bay Hill member. “This is where the dream came for him, when he took over this golf course. The umbrella and Bay Hill, Bay Hill and Arnold Palmer. They’re synonymous. That’s a very cool thing about our sport. We have living legends we get to be around.”
On Wednesday at Bay Hill, Palmer gave his annual state of the AP union, his topics ranging from the modern golf ball, slow play, lifting weights and back injuries to rivalries, young stars, Ike’s tree, an impending back surgery (post-Masters) and his taste in beverages (he admits he still gets a little embarrassed when someone nearby orders an ‘Arnold Palmer’).
Some quick hits:
• On Tiger catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors: “I don’t think 38 years is the ultimate stopping point for his quest to do what Jack did. I think it lessens the possibility of that happening.”
• On Augusta National losing its Eisenhower Tree: “I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby, and I watched it grow up. … I had encounters with it. I won the Masters one year when I hit it right into the tree and hit 4-iron from under the tree onto the 17th green. So it was a problem to everybody. And I played a lot of golf at Augusta with Ike (Eisenhower). And of course, he hated that tree.”
• On today’s players lifting weights: “I pushed a lawnmower, and it didn’t have a motor on it.”
• On the brashness of some modern-day players: “As my father taught me, and he drove home that point, he said, ‘Just remember something. You don’t need to tell people how good you are. You need to show them how good you are.’ . . . Win, and win as much as you can. I think Nicklaus has done that. Tiger has done that. I never heard Jack Nicklaus say, ‘I’m a great player,’ or Tiger Woods, as a matter of fact. They just get out and do it.”
As usual, Palmer never is afraid to have a laugh at his own expense. When a question was framed about Woods now being 38 years old, Palmer rolled his eyes skyward and deadpanned, “Old?”
Though his relationship with Woods has seemed fragile at times, Palmer did go out of his way to say Woods, who withdrew Tuesday afternoon with ongoing back issues, was pleasant when he phoned and that Palmer appreciated the fact the eight-time winner at Bay Hill “made every effort to play.”
Next month, Golf Channel will debut a three-part series on Palmer titled “Arnie,” the first episode airing after Sunday’s final round at the Masters, a tournament Palmer won four times. There was a private screening that showed five segments Tuesday night in Orlando, and the project is one that takes Palmer down memory lane, from his days as a youth in Latrobe, Pa., on to college days at Wake Forest, to his successes in golf and to his incredible prowess and power as a product pitchman from here to Japan and the world over. (He recently renewed a contract with Rolex, a company with whom he has been for nearly five decades, for 10 years.)
The opening to the “Arnie” trilogy begins with, “How do you tell the story of a life that’s larger than life?”
That’s a great question. It’s certainly not something easily done in three hours, or even three days. His life has been a charmed one, and the magical part about Palmer is that at 84, he still gives back far more than the game ever gave him. He is a true American icon.
“When I worked for him,” said Royce Nielson, who caddied for Palmer at Bay Hill and on tour for 13 years, “I used to tell people it was like going around with the Statue of Liberty. People would just be gaping … they couldn’t believe they were really seeing him.”
Across town from Bay Hill, there are not one, but two hospitals that Palmer has been instrumental in building, the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies. The hospitals will serve as his legacy one day, as will the integrity, grace and endless class he brings to a great game.
At Bay Hill, once more, he’s on center stage. And he doesn’t need to strike a single shot.