ORLANDO, Fla. — Bay Hill was never just a golf tournament venue, it was a rite of spring.
For years, we’d trek to central Florida and put up with all the theme-park tourists for a chance to visit with The King and his court of champions that more often than not included Tiger Woods.
There is no Woods seeking a ninth victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week. More tragically, there is no Arnold Palmer either.
Mr. Palmer died in September, but his legacy lives on everywhere golf is played. The only place he loomed larger than Augusta National Golf Club or his native Latrobe, Pa., is the Bay Hill Club &Lodge, which he bought in 1975 and turned into a PGA Tour destination.
“You can still feel my grandfather’s presence here this week,” said Sam Saunders, a tour pro who didn’t fall far from the Palmer tree.
Palmer’s presence is everywhere at Bay Hill. Many players are adorning their golf bags with his trademark umbrella logo. Others are popping into his office to sign memorabilia. His golf bag sits on the driving range while his golf cart sits in his favorite spot behind the 16th tee where he loved to watch his tournament.
A larger than life statue of a larger than life Palmer in full lashing swing was unveiled behind the first tee, where players and fans have queued up all week to take selfies with a golf giant.
On Wednesday morning – before a Coast Guard helicopter made a flyby – a few dozen pros lined the range to deliver a rolling salute to the man who made all of their lives more lucrative then any golfer deserves.
“It’s more of celebration of who he was and what he did for the game and all of us,” said Charles Howell . “Without Arnold, I don’t have a job and we darn sure don’t have the jobs that we do.”
Everyone whoever came in contact with Arnold Palmer has a story to tell – because no golfer in history has ever connected personally with more people than Palmer. He had a way of making everyone who crossed his path feel like the only other person in the world.
Stories about the King have flowed like the tales at an Irish wake. Rory McIlroy recalled first meeting him in the dogleg of the 13th hole at Augusta National – vividly describing the clothes he was wearing and the feel of Palmer’s massive mitt of a right hand shaking his.
“As a golfer it’s a bit of a fairy tale, I guess,” he said.
Jason Day cherishes being the last Arnold Palmer Invitational champion to be greeted by Palmer himself at the 18th green and share a stronger-than-your-average cocktail with Ketel One in the locker room after.
“I felt absolutely hammered,” Day said.
Every golfer has his favorite Arnie moment. Ernie Els, a two-time winner at Bay Hill, recalls meeting Palmer when they were paired together in the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive.
“We kind of hit it off and he invited me right then to his tournament,” Els said. “I get (to Bay Hill) in ’93 and I’m paired with Arnold. We played two rounds together and he made the cut and I missed the cut. In ’93! He was 63. He was just the best. We saw each other each and every year and just loved spending time together.”
Howell’s special moment with Palmer came on the White Course at Doral in the 2000 Shark Shootout when Howell and Adam Scott were partnered in a foursome with Palmer and Peter Jacobson.
“I made a hole-in-one with him,” Howell said. “Island green par 3 and I hit the green with a 9-iron and all I can remember is him asking ‘Is that a 9? Is that a 9?’ Arnie was hitting 6-iron in there. He was more upset with the clubs Adam and I were hitting than the fact I made a hole in one.”
It’s arguable that no athlete in any sport has ever been more beloved than Palmer. There were greater golfers but nobody who ever connected more naturally with the fans or peers. Standing on the practice tee watching all the perfect swings this week is a stark reminder that nobody can duplicate the unique slashing power that made Palmer so fun to watch for six decades and drew fans to the sport like no other before Tiger Woods.
Which is why the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill will always be an official rite of spring.
“My grandfather had a great life and really did some wonderful things,” Saunders said. “It’s our opportunity to have a week where we are front and center in the golfing world. Every year it is our chance to continue to show what he did for us all and carry on the legacy he left behind.”
Golf’s fans and players should never stop honoring The King.