ORLANDO, Fla. – This is not a week for mourning.
Oh, no, not at all.
Just as Arnold Palmer’s service last fall was a celebration of his outsized life, his eponymous tournament has become a way for players, the PGA Tour and the local community here to give thanks to the beloved American icon who died last September at age 87.
“I definitely don’t think this tournament has taken on a somber atmosphere at all,” Rory McIlroy said. “It should be a celebration of what has been a great life.”
The celebration began last Saturday, with the unveiling of the 13-foot, 1,392-pound bronze statue – similar to the one at Palmer’s alma mater, Wake Forest – behind the first tee. There is no velvet rope around the sculpture, no security guard out front. That’s not Arnie. No, just like the approachable megastar, fans are encouraged to get up close to the statue. To touch it. To take selfies with it.
Each player has a special way to honor Arnie.
Many have walked into Palmer’s office, virtually untouched last fall, to sign a commemorative flag. Rickie Fowler will wear custom shoes with Palmer’s image on the sides and signature across the strap. Morgan Hoffmann, who was inspired by Palmer to earn his private pilot’s license, has three custom wedges this week: a 52-degree with “Iced Tea & Lemonade,” Palmer’s favorite drink, engraved on the back of the club; a 58-degree etched with “The King”; and a 62-degree stamped with Palmer’s Citation plane and wing number. Many golf balls will feature Palmer’s signature umbrella, and that logo will be stitched into bags and hats and shirts.
Said Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson: “I hope the players and fans remember and can still feel my grandfather’s presence here this week. I know I do. I think all of us do.”
Saunders was tasked with opening the Wednesday meeting with the press, which was Palmer’s annual “State of the King” address to riff on a variety of topics. Flanked by Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, Saunders, the third-year Tour player, joked, “I don’t quite know why I’m here …” but he filled in admirably (as he did at the service last fall) as the family frontman.
Never has it been more of a team effort.
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell was summoned for a board meeting last December to share what made this tournament great from a player’s perspective and how, in the future, it can be even better. Those discussions led McDowell, who lives in nearby Lake Nona, to be named part of the tournament host committee, along with Sorenstam, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobson and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. As the only active player-host, McDowell views himself as a tournament ambassador. “If there was ever a week to educate players on how to carry themselves, this would be an ideal opportunity,” he said.
Added Sorenstam: “We’re not here to fill the shoes of Mr. Palmer, but rather just continue to carry the torch that he has started and that he has been carrying for a long time.”
The Tour elevated the API last March, when they bumped the purse from $6.3 million to $8.7 million and offered a three-year exemption to the winner, not the usual two. Monahan described the foundation of the tournament as “incredibly solid,” despite some of the handwringing from players and media types about the perceived poor turnout this year. Here at Bay Hill are four of the top five players in the world, and 14 of the top 25.
“It is a selfless thing to come and play in this event this week and guys are really making an effort to make it about them. They’re here from their heart,” Saunders said. “They’re playing because they know that my grandfather was able to give them a career, give them an opportunity to play golf for a living.”
It was Saunders, 29, who led players onto the range Wednesday morning for the opening ceremony.
Tournament officials planned for 25 players but instead needed two waves to accommodate the roughly 75 that showed up. A video montage appeared on the electronic leaderboard, with reflections from some of the game’s legends, and a U.S. Coast Guard chopper made a flyover.
“This moment right here,” Saunders said, “would mean the world to my grandfather. Let’s hit this one hard.”
And so, one by one, they lashed at their tee shots into a cold, stiff breeze. It was golf’s version of the 21-gun salute. Defending champion Jason Day, playing in the pro-am, stopped by as he made the turn, borrowing another player’s club to pipe a drive, then signed a ball and dumped it into the bucket that will be auctioned off for charity.
Other remembrances this week are more subtle.
Palmer’s golf bag is positioned on the far-right corner of the range, his favorite spot to dig it out of the dirt.
His cart (with two sets of clubs on the back, as usual) is stationed behind the 16th tee, his favorite spot to watch golf.
And some of the trophies and medals from his office are available for viewing throughout the course.
“It’s not just about this year, although clearly this is a very important tribute year,” said tournament director Marci Doyle. “We are here to make it bigger and better every year, because that was Mr. Palmer’s mantra.”
What will happen Sunday remains to be seen. For four decades, Palmer greeted players as they walked off the 18th green. He complimented them on their fine play. He thanked them for taking the time to play his event. Members of the tournament host committee likely will fill that role now, but it won’t – it can’t – engender the same emotions.
“We’re not trying to replace him,” Doyle said.
But they are trying to remember him, and so the winners here no longer will receive a blue blazer – they will instead don a red cardigan sweater, Palmer’s favorite choice of outerwear.
Yes, from the tournament’s start to its finish, there are little touches of Arnie everywhere.
“He would probably wish us all to be celebrating rather than commiserating this week,” McDowell said, “and I think it will be a celebration.”