ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s something you should know about this week’s PGA Tour stop at Bay Hill. Twelve of the world’s top 20-ranked golfers teed it up Thursday. That makes this a strong field for a mere qualifying tournament.
I can almost hear the late Arnold Palmer’s voice asking tersely, “A mere what!?”
Just kidding but only sort of. Technically, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is just another qualifying tournament. Every tournament in golf is a qualifier for something, somewhere. The only event that wasn’t is defunct: the Grand Slam of Golf, a 36-hole, made-for-TV show featuring the four reigning major champions. That was the toughest field in golf to crack, and all for a well-paid vacation, usually in some sweet spot such as Hawaii or Bermuda.
You probably know that nearly any PGA Tour victory earns the winner a spot in the Masters Tournament in April and the PGA Championship in May. Two tour wins in a season guarantees a spot in the U.S. Open.
There’s another major qualifier on the line this week. Berths in the British Open will go to the top three players who finish among the top 10 and ties and are not already qualified for the Open. It will be the first Open played at Royal Portrush since 1951.
“We’re excited to be part of that,” said Marci Doyle, the API’s tournament director.
The API is a new addition to the qualifying series that the R&A annually runs – and keeps refining – for the Open. So, there’s actually a tournament within the tournament this week. And the obvious Step One to winning any major is … being in the field.
The Bay Hill qualifier is such a new development that former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell didn’t find out about it until Tuesday. That’s significant because he’s from Northern Ireland, the Open is going to be contested in his hometown and after a couple of down years, well, he has to earn his way into the Open.
That makes this a huge time for McDowell. He’s got a home game at the Open championship in July, a month after the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach, where he won that title in 2010 (and qualified for the massively important Grand Slam of Golf, where he finished, um, tied for third).
“It’s going to be a special summer, if I can get myself there,” said McDowell, who has won only two PGA Tour events since 2010 and not finished inside the top 125 on the tour’s points list in three of the past five seasons. “My game is there right now. I’ve just got to get out of my own way and have a little fun and not have things like that rattle around in my head too much.”
McDowell laughed and added, “But thanks for reminding me.”
He and his agent stumbled upon the three-spot qualifier while paging through the Tour schedule.
“It’s a great thing that we have the spots here,” McDowell said. “But I’ve got a lot of work to do this week. I’m just trying to look at the big picture and take the pressure off myself. It’s hard to do, because I want it really badly.”
He took a nice step forward in the opening round early Thursday when he shot 4-under 68, a score bettered by only two other players: Rafael Cabrera-Bello, 65, and Keegan Bradley, 67.
There will be other chances for McDowell and any would-be Open competitors if they don’t land a spot this week. The API is part of a 16-event Open Qualifying Series in 11 countries. It’s a clever way to hold Open qualifying by using already-existing tournaments to determine some spots (46) versus the U.S. Open’s tradition of holding separate, standalone qualifying events.
Two other PGA Tour stops also will have British Open berths: the new Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit and the RBC Canadian Open.
Bay Hill would be the most poetically just qualifying place for McDowell, should it happens. He finished second in this event in 2005, which helped him get a foothold on the PGA Tour and, in America.
“I bought my house in Lake Nona the week after,” McDowell said. “This tournament is the reason I live in Orlando, to be honest. My wife’s from here, too, so she’s probably a bigger reason now. But this tournament is very special to me. I’ve got a lot of great memories here – Mr. Palmer and everything he’s meant to golf.”
Thursday was a good start toward a turnaround for McDowell, who finished 144th in points last season. Forget the Opens. He needs to start playing well to regain full exempt status on the tour. He’ll turn 40 in July, but things are looking up. He tied for 11th in last fall’s RSM Classic and finished T-18 in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am last month.
It’s surprising to think of McDowell, a Ryder Cup hero for Europe, struggling with his game, but that’s been the reality of the past few seasons, not including 2016, when he played well.
Ask him what went wrong and he smiles, which is his usual expression.
“It’s literally just life,” he said. “Life got in the way. Mostly the family stuff. I don’t think I ever rested on my laurels. My practice changed, the time that I gave to the game changed and I was less effective in what I was doing. It sneaked up on me and happened before I realized it. Life just got in the way, and it’s hard to get it back. I’ve been chipping away at it and trying to enjoy the process of digging my way back.”
His challenges are typical of those faced by every successful tour player who reaches his late 30s and has a family. The kids grow older, the urge to stay home gets stronger because it’s less fun to travel and there are other ways off the course to make money. McDowell started a high-end restaurant-bar in Lake Nona called Nona Blue. It’s been successful enough that he opened a second one near the entrance to TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Friday and on the weekend, his focus will be on Bay Hill, however … he hopes.
“If I let Portrush get into my mind, the balance will become imbalance,” McDowell said. “I haven’t played very well with a gun to my head. Like trying to get into the top 125 in the FedEx Cup and getting myself back up in the top 100 in the world. I haven't done a good job when I put pressure on myself. So, I'm trying to do the opposite right now. I'm just trying to take a little pressure off myself and just realize that I love this game. I’m starting to play some good golf, and I would love to have a great year and get myself to Portrush at the end of that road.”
For McDowell, that road starts here this weekend.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle