ORLANDO — A lot has changed at Bay Hill in the 33 years since Gary Koch won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in a playoff with George Burns. Start with the prize money. I ask Koch if he remembers how big his first-place check was in 1984.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “$72,000.”
I wonder what finish is good for that figure this year.
“Not as high as first, that’s for sure.”
Turns out 26th place about covers Koch’s old payout. The guy who wins on Sunday will have 1.6 million reasons to toast the memory of Arnie, who died 18 months ago at the age of 87.
That’s the biggest change of all, of course. Bay Hill is a kingdom without a monarch.
Palmer presided here much as the Wizard ruled Oz. He was omnipresent, on the range to josh with players early in the week, waiting behind 18 on Sunday to congratulate Tiger, or someone else in one of those rare years when Woods didn’t win.
“Last year the feeling was almost remorseful that he wasn’t here and we missed him,” Koch says. “This year I get the sense from the players that it’s more of a celebration of what he stood for. It’s a more upbeat atmosphere.”
But for how long will the next generation of golfers feel compelled to celebrate the legacy of a ghost?
Some players were criticized a year ago for not showing up for the first playing of the event after Palmer’s death. Koch doesn’t fault them for that.
“The younger generation obviously revered Arnold as we all did, but things are different now. They just are. That’s a fact,” the NBC announcer says. “They’re more selective as to where they play. They make more money. I would like to hope the field would continue to be as strong.”
“It may be unfair to ask the next generation to have the strength of feeling that we have,” says Rich Lerner, the Golf Channel host. He’s a Pennsylvania guy who grew up idolizing Arnie.
Lerner believes two things may help keep the API among the elite tier on Tour even as Arnie’s memory grows more distant: scheduling and Tiger Woods.
Next year, the Players Championship moves back on the calendar from May to March, likely bolstering Bay Hill as a key preparation stop in a reconfigured Florida Swing. And then there’s Woods, who’s own image looms large over Bay Hill.
“As long as he keeps coming, it remains an elevated event,” Lerner says. “And because he’s so inextricably linked to this place, it furthers the cause. It matters if Tiger won it eight times. If it mattered to Tiger then maybe it will continue to matter to the kids who look up to him. To Fowler. To McIlroy. To Spieth.”
Fowler has been resolute in paying tribute to Palmer and supporting the tournament. McIlroy is here for the fourth straight year and told me Wednesday that he loves the course and wishes he had played here more often earlier in his career. Spieth has never played the event.
That is no knock on Spieth, who may be the most Palmer-like figure among the younger generation on Tour. And not just because of his funky swing and tendency to generate both high drama and tragedy in his biggest moments. It’s in his comportment, his courtesy toward the folks paying to be on the other side of the ropes.
Does it matter that he isn’t here and never has been?
Not one iota.
Spieth innately understands that the legacy of Arnie is best honored not by showing up at Bay Hill one week a year, but by acting like him the other 51 weeks of the year. That is tribute enough.