ORLANDO, Fla. – In the uncharacteristically chilly air of Central Florida in March, a significant questions floats in the air that permeates Bay Hill, the longtime winter home of the late king, Arnold Palmer.
Marci Doyle, who carries the title of COO (tournament director) of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, doesn’t dodge the question, but actually welcomes it: Going forward, in the namesake’s absence, what will happen to the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
“I love that question,” she says. “It’s going to get bigger and better. It’s going to get nothing but more special, and we’re going to continue to elevate it.”
On Thursday at Bay Hill, there will be official golf, featuring an invitational field of 120 players. Wednesday marked an opportunity for the tournament to salute the man who built it, pretty much from scratch.
The API, which moved to Bay Hill from nearby Rio Pinar (Florida Citrus Open) in 1979, has come quite a long way. The purse has been bumped to $8.7 million, and this week’s winner not only will leave $1.56 million richer, but will receive a three-year PGA Tour exemption, not the usual two a winner grabs.
This week’s event will celebrate the everyday fan who connected with the blue-collar likes of Palmer, with large public grandstands now sitting up close to seven of the course’s greens.
It’s a far cry from Year 1 at the then-named Bay Hill Citrus Classic in 1979, when the makeshift grandstand that sat behind the 18th green was borrowed from nearby Boone High School.
More than that, there’s simply a spirit about the place this week, saluting a man who was everything to golf, and who never stopped building back. Players have donned signature Palmer umbrellas on their hats and golf bags, and not a single child in the city should go wanting for an autograph this week.
This was always going to be a big week on the heels of Palmer’s passing at age 87 last September. But what of the tournament moving forward? It sits in a busy stretch of the schedule, sandwiched between two World Golf Championships and just three weeks in front of the seasons’s first major. So what gives us confidence that golfers touted as independent contractors will continue to do the right thing?
“I love this golf course, and I’ve always played well here,” said Rickie Fowler, one of five top-10 world players teeing it up this week. “I know there are guys who don’t enjoy playing it, but that’s the way it is with any course you go to.
“But there are a lot of guys who love playing here. I think it has the potential of being even stronger, as guys, I feel like, are going to want to come here just to keep it alive.”
Fowler, like many others, is curious to see the television numbers this week, figuring that Palmer’s ongoing legacy and vast overall popularity will be enough to overcome the absence of eight-time API champion Tiger Woods, who is home in Jupiter rehabbing his balky back.
Graeme McDowell, one of five tournaments hosts this week, considers the biggest value of this year’s API being that today’s players are learning more about Palmer and his giving ways. Peter Jacobsen, whose career was heavily influenced by some early meetings and outings with Palmer, is also one of the week’s hosts at Bay Hill, and has been amazed to discover the number of responsibilities Palmer held down on any given tournament week. Heck, up until 2004, when he was 74, Palmer played in the event, too.
“He bounced around and did everything,” Jacobsen said. “Everything. Just stopping by, thanking people, saying hello, handling the media … we have five of us, and it’s crazy.”
There is a powerful message in this week’s event. There won’t be another Arnold Palmer, ever, but every man in the field can do a little bit better. Maybe set a better example on the course. Or do more for charity. Play more. Or treat people as Palmer would, signing every last autograph, often needing to throw away his shirt at the end of the day because of the dozens of pen marks fans left while waving materials beneath his nose.
The tournament will continue to leave its mark on local charities, supporting two local hospitals in Arnold and Winnie Palmer’s names. The boost to the champion’s purse is nice ($1.566 million) as are all the perks. But it’s the warm spirit of Palmer that must live on for players to buy in and support it.
On the practice tee shortly before noon on Wednesday, all sorts of people gathered to salute Palmer. Fans. Players. Tournament officials. Manufacturer reps. A video played. Players stepped in and hugged Palmer’s widow, Kit, and exchanged pleasantries with his daughter, Amy, who chairs the Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation. Palmer’s grandson, PGA Tour player Sam Saunders (son of Amy and Roy Saunders) was brief and steady in his praise of just what his grandfather meant not just to him, but to all.
“I think my grandfather’s legacy speaks for itself,” he said.
Players did a “21-ball” salute – actually, nearly 70 players would hit balls in total, with Saunders unsheathing the driver from his grandfather’s bag and hitting the first one from the reserved spot where his grandfather always would practice. Steve Wheatcroft, like Palmer a product of Western Pennsylvania, knelt near Palmer’s bag, taking a picture with his 2-year-old son, Chase.
In fact, the week was so meaningful to Wheatcroft, who is playing in his second API, that he brought his entire family along. Tuesday afternoon, they participated in Arnie’s March to help cure children’s cancer.
“He (Chase) doesn’t know what’s going on out there now, but someday he will,” Wheatcroft said. “Luckily, two years ago, he was six or seven months old and we were here, and Mr. Palmer got to hold Chase and we got a nice picture with him. One day I look forward to showing him all the pictures and the things he got to see.”
The poignant ceremony closed with a flyover from a yellow Coast Guard chopper, signifying Palmer’s three years in the service after he left Wake Forest. The chopper approached from the west, then got smaller and smaller and vanished down the fairway.
As the chopper faded into the sky, it reminded one and all that nothing stays with us forever. Not even legends. Though in their absence, they can leave behind something very special.
“It’s not just about this year,” said Doyle, the first-year tournament director. “Clearly, this is a very important tribute year, but we are here to make it bigger and better every year, because that was Mr. Palmer’s mantra, about the hospitals and about everything that he did.
“We can do better. We can make it better.”
Yes, we all can do better.