By Gary Van Sickle
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – I’m not a big fan of ceremonies and symbols and gestures. A statue of the late Arnold Palmer will be dedicated next week at Bay Hill before the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the PGA Tour event that he hosted for nearly four decades.
The monument will be a nice touch, surely, like the one of Ben Hogan that looks out over the 18th green at Colonial Country Club or the one of Byron Nelson at the TPC Four Seasons Resort, where Nelson’s name graced the tournament title for years.
Palmer’s legacy is more than a statue. It’s more than Bay Hill, the Orlando club that he owned, or the tournament, of which he was the face for years.
Palmer’s true legacy is golf itself. Professional golf wouldn’t be what it is without him. Neither would recreational golf. You can’t tell the story of golf’s last 60 years without Palmer. For a lot of people around the world in the 1960s, he was golf.
So, it would be nice to honor Palmer at the first API since he died Sept. 25 at 87. There has been some controversy about what may be considered a weak turnout, with only 14 of the world’s top 25 players expected to compete. The missing will include No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson.
The best time to honor a man is when he’s alive. There were enough polite whispers around Bay Hill last year that most players and media members understood that the 2016 API might be the last one Palmer would see. Palmer probably had a pretty good idea, too. In January 2016, I got an email from a distraught PGA Tour member who had played Bay Hill, saw Palmer and was upset about how terrible he looked. The meeting sent a chill down the player’s spine just as his news sent a chill down mine.
Palmer rallied by Bay Hill time, though, and pulled off his hosting duties with charismatic aplomb. It wasn’t Arnie’s first stirring comeback, but it may have been one of his greatest.
Pros who wanted to honor him should have played last year. The players who aren’t coming to Bay Hill next week deserve no criticism. A tournament is a business vehicle that happens to generate money for local charities. It just so happens that Bay Hill’s date is a bad one this year because of two World Golf Championships squeezed into March and the Masters looming. Palmer knew better than anyone what is asked of the top players. He felt that same pressure 50 years earlier and was careful not to badger players to come to his event. It’s just business.
Sam Saunders, Palmer’s Tour-playing grandson, conceded that he is “disappointed” about the field on an emotional level but he understands, too.
There are ways to honor Palmer that are better than a statue. Live a good life, be a good person and play golf The Arnie Way. Sign as many autographs as possible. Legibly, too, so the kids and grandfathers can read the signature. Make spectators, pro-am partners and even media folks feel special. Smile until it hurts. Ask what you can do for tournament sponsors, not what they can do for you. Play the API or not, but give it all you’ve got every time you tee it up. And, oh, yeah: Feel free to write a nice check to the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.
The man brought his sport into the age of television. He forced it onto the front page of the sports section. He built a hospital. He left a trail of global goodwill.
Most of all, he left us golf. There’s going to be a golf tournament played at Bay Hill next week no matter who decides to show, something that would make Arnold Palmer smile. That’s good enough for me.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle