By Steve Elling
First of a two-part series
ORLANDO, Fla. – South African Louis Oosthuizen vividly recalls playing a practice round alongside countryman Charl Schwartzel a few years back when the latter noticed some peripheral movement.
Standing in the middle of a fairway at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Schwartzel was preparing to hit an approach shot when an electric cart pulled up behind him. Schwartzel turned and heard a familiar voice say, “Hit a good shot, young man.”
Hey, no pressure, mate. The venerable tournament host, Arnold Palmer, was out making the rounds.
“Those are the things that stay with you,” Oosthuizen said, grinning.
Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87, cast one of the longest shadows in golf history. His thumbs-up positivity will all but envelope this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“We’ve had our mourning time, and we surely miss his presence,” tournament director Marci Doyle said, “but we want the week to be a celebration.”
Palmer loved to mingle with guests, tell tales and hoist a libation. A somber mood this week would have annoyed him.
“He was all about having a good time,” said Annika Sorenstam, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who is serving as a co-host this week. “And that’s what we want to live up to.”
Graeme McDowell, Peter Jacobsen, Curtis Strange and Tom Ridge, the former governor of Palmer’s native Pennsylvania, will join Sorenstam in divvying up Palmer’s tournament duties – from pressing flesh with sponsors to hosting pro-am parties – at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge. It’s a tough ask for anybody, because Palmer’s charismatic presence can’t be duplicated.
When Palmer played, a legion of followers carried him along. When it comes to serving as his fill-in hosts, it takes an army, too. In five-part harmony, the King’s court is determined to make the first PGA Tour event staged at Bay Hill without Palmer a fun, not funereal, affair.
“I'm humbled by the fact that they've asked me, and I will be doing everything I can to fill maybe one of the eye laces on his shoes,” Jacobsen said. “We certainly can't fill his shoes, but it's going to be a great week, one that hopefully sets the tone for future Arnold Palmer Invitationals.”
It’s intended to be a veneration of what Palmer brought to the game and his backyard club, which first hosted the tour in 1979.
“The guy was a legend, and with all that he has done for Orlando and the game, he should be celebrated,” Charles Howell III said.
As was the case for Sorenstam and McDowell, Howell’s two kids were born in the Palmer hospital complex in downtown Orlando. Thus, there are bound to be some moist eyes when the 13-foot statue of Palmer, erected over the weekend, is spotted between the first and 10th tees. Forged larger than life in bronze, Palmer figuratively will be looking down upon fans and organizers.
Memorabilia from Palmer’s treasure trove of personal items will be on display in multiple locations for fans. His cart, replete with two golf bags brimming with clubs, will be parked on the grounds. Players will have Palmer’s logo umbrella stitched into their clothes, caps and bags. For the first time, there will be an opening ceremony on Thursday morning.
The Fab Five face an incredible vacuum, because Palmer famously circulated among fans during tournament week, signing autographs and posing for photos.
Palmer anecdotes will be flying, for sure. He famously sent forests of congratulatory notes to players after victories, built a personal connection with many, and as Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo put it, “Never met a stranger.”
Like Oosthuizen, almost everybody associated with the game has a memorable Palmer story, if not several. Some connections practically run DNA deep.
For instance, Strange’s late father, Tom, played with Palmer as an amateur and later served as an Arnold Palmer Golf staff member. Curtis played with Palmer clubs as a kid and eventually was awarded the Arnold Palmer Scholarship at Wake Forest, their alma mater. Strange got married on a Friday in 1976, played in an exhibition with Palmer on Saturday, and stayed that night at Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pa. Strange and his new bride, Sarah, then left for three days of honeymooning at Bay Hill.
“I could be the poster boy for somebody who has been influenced by Mr. Palmer,” Strange said. “But that’s the beauty of Arnold. Everybody has a story like mine.”
Palmer’s rise from a greenkeeper’s kid to golf royalty reads like the stuff of mythic proportions. Through it all, Palmer never much changed, as Strange pointed out to Amy Saunders, one of Arnold’s two daughters and whose son, Sam, plays on the PGA Tour.
Said Strange: “Therein lies the great contradiction of your dad: Humble beginnings, and as big as he became, he never turned down a dinner, an autograph request, a handshake, anything. He was truly one of a kind.”
Coming Tuesday: The future of the Arnold Palmer Invitational without Arnold Palmer