News & Opinion

King-size order: Keep Arnie in 'The Arnie'

ORLANDO, Fla. – A few years ago, the Arnold Palmer Invitational ran a series of 15-second spots that featured Palmer adding the personal touch to various tasks to get ready for the tournament – calling players, swapping out pin flags, even some light landscaping.

The sight of an 85-year-old Palmer on his stomach stalking a wayward blade of grass with tiny scissors – “Got you, you son of a gun!” – is still good for a chuckle. And the message was unquestionably on point.

This is Arnie’s baby. Come be a part of it, whether you’re a player or a fan.

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One of the perks of winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, as Matt Every found out in 2015 for a second consecutive year, was receiving congratulations from Arnold Palmer.

Anyone who came to Bay Hill knew how much attention Palmer poured into his event. He tinkered with the layout almost to a fault, seeking just the right challenge. He made the phone calls to recruit players. He took an active role in inviting amateurs and up-and-coming professionals. A big chunk of Sunday was spent just off the 18th green, greeting the final pairings as they finished play.

Short of a major-championship trophy, there may have been no better perk than being congratulated by Palmer minutes after the final putt. (Yes, Jack Nicklaus at Memorial has equal billing.)

But what happens when the beloved icon isn’t around anymore?

This week’s invitational marks the third since Palmer’s death, enough time for the sting to wear off and a new sense of normalcy to emerge. But the question was being floated even before he died, with the understanding that no one goes on forever.

Arnie’s magnetism made Bay Hill a special place. Without him, will the PGA Tour’s top players continue to come back?

“Arnold Palmer was arguably the most beloved figure in the game,” said Jon Podany, on whose shoulders falls chief responsibility as the new chief executive officer of Arnold Palmer Enterprises. “But you can’t live in the past. You’ve got to create reasons today so that people find this event to be compelling.”

You don’t want to find yourself down the same path as the AT&T Byron Nelson, which for all the yeoman work of Dallas’ Salesmanship Club couldn’t stop a slow seepage of top draws after Nelson’s death in 2006.

Similar parallels might be drawn to the Bob Hope Desert Classic. No disrespect to either event, but Arnold Palmer’s legacy deserves better than that.

“There’s a deep sense of obligation that I’ve got to get this right,” said Podany, a former PGA Tour and LPGA executive who was given the keys by Palmer’s family last autumn.

So far, so good. This week’s lineup features 12 of the top 20 players in the world rankings, including No. 2 Justin Rose, No. 3 Brooks Koepka, No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau and No. 6 Rory McIlroy, the defending champion. Tiger Woods, an eight-time winner who is No. 12 in the world, withdrew Monday, citing a neck strain.

Go a little deeper, and 32 of the top 50 are entered. Last year, it was 23 of the top 50. Though the official calculation won’t be finalized until midweek, Podany hinted that it’s on track to be the strongest Bay Hill field in 12 years.

“We did have an aggressive campaign to make sure players knew all the good things that are going on here,” Podany said.

PGA Tour dynamics have played a role. Two years ago, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Memorial Tournament were given enhanced status, carrying three-year exemptions for the winners and a boost in the purses. The Genesis Open, hosted by Woods, joins the tier next season.

This year’s $9.1 million prize fund is greater than all but 13 events on Tour: the four majors, the four World Golf Championships, the Players, the three playoff events and the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges.

The revised Tour schedule also helps, giving Bay Hill its old lead-in spot to the Players, which returns to March. That’s the way it was for the better part of 15 years before the Players shifted to May in 2007.

Bay Hill itself also has new upgrades to showcase, including a revamped practice range and new 2-acre short-game area. A state-of-the-art irrigation system, allowing some 4,400 sprinklers to be individually controlled, has members proclaiming conditions as the best ever.

“I think the improvements we made have caught some word of mouth,” Podany said.

For fans, a new interactive exhibit built alongside the 10th fairway offers a reminder of Palmer’s legacy.

The Arnold Palmer Experience features a 360-degree theater showing a six-minute retrospective of Palmer’s multifaceted life: champion golfer, family man, aviator, businessman, philanthropist, friend of presidents.

The theater opens into a second space interspersing some of Palmer’s memorabilia, with swing simulators allowing fans to try to replicate some of The King’s most famous shots. Options include driving the green at Cherry Hills (1960 U.S. Open), hitting out of the gorse at Royal Birkdale (1961 British Open) or driver off the deck in his final appearance at Bay Hill (2004).

“It’ll give fans an opportunity to better learn about who he was,” Podany said, “to engage in an interactive way [and] not just hang things on the wall.”

The Byron Nelson Classic might have liked to have something like that at its disposal. The late Nelson played only 12 full seasons before retiring to his ranch in 1946, later teeing up only at the Masters and occasional majors. He already was retired 22 years when he lent his name to the tournament.

That said, no interactive exhibit could overcome the Nelson tournament’s biggest drawback.

“Players didn’t like TPC Las Colinas,” recalled Podany, who was a PGA Tour senior vice president in those days.

Nelson’s gentlemanly presence helped mitigate that flaw for years. After his death in 2006, though, there was no reason for players to return to a course they didn’t like.

In the three editions before Nelson’s death, the tournament boasted such draws as Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Chris DiMarco.

Within four years, all but Singh and DiMarco had gone absent. Woods stopped coming after 2005, Els and Furyk after 2006, Mickelson after 2007, Garcia and Donald after 2008, Scott after 2009.

A handful returned in 2012 to commemorate what would have been Nelson’s 100th birthday, but that turned out to be a singular occasion. Garcia gets a gold star of sorts, coming back again in 2016 and winning.

The shift of the Players to May also hurt, with the Nelson usually falling the week after pros endured the TPC Sawgrass test. The popularity of the new Wells Fargo Championship added more competition to the May calendar.

Though such contemporary stars as Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Dallas native Jordan Spieth have made the Nelson a regular stop on their schedules, the top tier still doesn’t approach the depth it once did.

“I think everybody learned from that,” Podany said. “I think that’s why the Tour has made an effort now to give elevated status to people like Arnie and Jack and now Tiger.”

It’s just one piece of the puzzle, though. Amid perhaps the strongest six-week stretch of the schedule outside the British Open through the FedEx Cup playoffs, it’ll take a high standard on the home front to keep Woods, Rose, McIlroy, Koepka – and generations beyond – coming back each year.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational was a major highlight in Arnie’s year. To see it diminished would be a sad turn of fortune.

“It’s not going to happen on my watch,” Podany said resolutely.

Jeff Shain has been writing and podcasting about golf since 2000, including more than a dozen years at The Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel. Email: jeffshain@gmail.com. Twitter: @jeffshain