Arnold Palmer may not be around to greet the champion of his event anymore, but his legacy is still on everyone’s mind at Bay Hill this week.
For decades, the familiar figure of Arnold Palmer could be seen standing by the 18th green at Bay Hill, waiting to greet the champion of his namesake event.
Palmer, who died in September 2016, isn’t around anymore, but his presence is still felt this week as players come to Orlando for the Arnold Palmer Invitational. A field of the world’s best golfers is chasing the more than $9 million prize pool and a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour.
Most importantly, however, they’re here to honor the King.
Golf fans may argue about who is the best golfer of all-time, Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. There’s no doubt, though, about who was the most important.
In the 1960s Palmer and Arnie’s Army, as his legion of fans was affectionately called, took golf out of the country clubs and into the mainstream. He brought golf to the masses and with it did more to help the growth of the game than any player before or since.
Rory McIlroy, the defending champion, understands well what Palmer meant to the game. For years McIlroy avoided playing at Bay Hill, even as Palmer continued to write him congratulatory letters after each career milestone.
He made his first appearance in 2015 and has come back every year since. He now realizes it was a mistake to skip the event for so many years.
“Once I played here I sort of thought to myself, ‘Why haven’t I played here sooner,” he said on Wednesday. “When Arnold would write me all those letters after wins. ‘Hope to see you at Bay Hill next year,’ and I could never make it for various reasons. It was nice to finally be here and play and get to spend some time with him, have dinner with him. And I sort of said that year that I would make a real effort to be back here every year.”
When McIlroy won here last year, shooting 64 in the final round to win by three shots, it was his first worldwide victory in 18 months. His previous win had come at the Tour Championship in 2016, fittingly on the same day that Palmer died.
The talent-loaded field assembled this week is a testament to Palmer’s legacy and the importance attached to this event. Six of the top-10 players and 13 of the top-25 are playing this week. One notable absence, however, is Woods.
The eight-time champion of this event had to withdraw on Monday with neck stiffness.
World No. 2 Justin Rose says while Palmer will be missed, he will still be in everyone’s mind while playing this week.
“I think obviously it’s fitting to have a great field to honor…Arnold Palmer’s legacy and what this event has become,” Rose said this week. “Anytime I play tournaments that are hosted by a legend of the game…I had the opportunity to win the Memorial [in 2010] and you can’t help but look for Jack when you’re walking up the 18th hole. And it was the same for Arnold here.”
“When you play late enough on Sunday there was always that moment where you’d look for him on 18. Obviously, he’s not going to be there in person anymore, but it takes a great person to be there in spirit and I think that’s what this tournament feels like. Like he’s still here very much so in person.”
Since 2017, the champion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational has been awarded a red cardigan that Palmer made his trademark. Palmer’s umbrella logo is everywhere around Bay Hill, even on the tees.
The tournament also helps support the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.
The champion come Sunday won’t get to shake Palmer’s hand after the tournament, won’t get to share a smile with him. But many of the players can remember a particular act of kindness Palmer showed them, or, like McIlroy a letter he personally wrote them.
Palmer may be gone, but he won’t be forgotten as long as golf continues to be played every March at Bay Hill.