Englishman returns to Arnold Palmer Invitational as defending champion after a year marked by a wide range of emotions
For starters, there was that victory last March, his first on the PGA Tour, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It would prove to be the last hurrah – literally – for Hatton and professional golf for some time.
COVID-19 shut down the PGA Tour for three months, and since the season restart in June, golf spectators have been mostly silenced as the world eases its way back into a routine. Hatton, however, loudly announced his arrival in the past 12 months in the professional game.
Since his victory at Bay Hill, the 29-year-old Englishman has won twice on his home European Tour, at the BMW PGA and in Abu Dhabi, and has risen to No. 6 in the world ranking. He will be the highest-ranked player in a field that will feature 12 of the top 25 in the world when play begins Thursday at the late Palmer’s longtime winter home.
“It was a huge moment for me in my career,” Hatton said in a media interview Wednesday at Bay Hill. “Winning for the first time on the PGA Tour, at such an iconic venue, is extremely special. Although we did have, unfortunately, a long break not long after the tournament last year, I guess I kind of kept that run going and ended up having a brilliant year.
“I proved myself on the European Tour,” said Hatton, a six-time winner on his home tour. “To win here, it was a world-class field. It does a lot for the confidence, and I'm sure it played a huge part in how I then, once we restarted golf again, how I kind of finished off the year.”
Hatton owns a well-deserved reputation for spontaneous combustion on the course, but he showed his lighter side earlier this year in a European Tour video called "Angry Golfers." His personality, in his most uncontrolled moments, fits the script.
But as quickly as he starts to bubble over, the eruption subsides. And he is able to appreciate the self-deprecating humor.
"It's gone down very well," he said of the skit with some of the tour's biggest stars: Tommy Fleetwood, Eddie Pepperell, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Matt Wallace. "I mean, it's a pretty funny piece."
Hatton had reason to smile at his play for much of 2020. He missed only three cuts in 17 worldwide starts, though those weekends off occurred at the three biggest events of the year: U.S. Open, PGA Championship and Masters. Nonetheless, he has emerged as one of Europe’s top contenders to land a spot on the Ryder Cup team that will challenge the U.S. in late September at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. Hatton went 1-2 in the Europeans’ 17½-10½ victory against the Americans in France in 2018.
Hatton enters the $9.3 million API, the second of four consecutive stops on the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing, after a T-22 last week at the WGC Workday at Concession.
The past three API champions, all Europeans, will be grouped together for the first two rounds. Hatton was paired with Italy’s Francesco Molinari, the 2019 Bay Hill winner, and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the 2018 champ, at 8:06 a.m. EST Thursday on the 10th tee (tee times).
Attendance will be limited to 25 percent of capacity at Bay Hill, which Hatton said represents another step toward progress in the professional game.
“We all know how lucky we are to kind of be working, and I guess having almost a normal life, really, being able to play tournaments,” he said. “Just a general consensus from the players is that we're very happy to be playing again.
“It's kind of hard to remember the cheers, really. We played a lot of golf since then, with obviously no fans. It will be nice having a limited number of fans out there again, just to kind of give a bit more of an atmosphere and hopefully I can do something worth cheering about.”
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