Second in a two-part series
By Steve Elling
ORLANDO, Fla. – Paul Casey considered the query for roughly the time it takes to tap in a 6-inch putt. To Casey, it was a gimme.
This week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, being staged for the first time since its famous namesake died last fall, will feature a solid field filled with some – but certainly not all – of the best players on the PGA Tour. Casey, ranked No. 15 in the world, all but laughed when asked whether he intended to pay homage to the man dubbed golf’s “King.”
“Why wouldn’t you play?” he said.
It might seem like a rhetorical question, but plenty of his peers found reasons to skip the event at Palmer’s backyard course, Bay Hill Club and Lodge, which has hosted the PGA Tour annually since 1979. While the field will feature five of the top 10 in the world and 14 of the top 25, it’s not the turnout that many envisioned, given that Palmer likely was the most impactful, magnetic player in the modern game’s history, and the week represents a tribute of sorts.
“I think it’s a tournament that, if you can, you should play every year,” world No. 28 Louis Oosthuizen said, “and I’m going to try to do that every year from now on.”
For years around Orlando, clubhouse whispers concerned what might befall the event after Palmer’s death. Tournament officials, mindful that Father Time is undefeated, started addressing the API’s future years ago.
“I love for people to realize that it’s so far from the truth that the tournament would ever go backwards,” said Marci Doyle, the tournament director since 2015. “We’ve done nothing but plan over the past few years about issues like his legacy and ensuring the tournament thrives going forward.”
The event was named after Palmer a decade ago, marking the first part of the post-King transition. Starting in 2015, exemptions for the winners of the Tour’s two biggest invitationals, the events run by Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, were expanded from two to three years, second only to the five years given to major champions. This week, the purse had been cranked up 28 percent, to $8.7 million – more money than the British Open. MasterCard, the event’s longtime sponsor, extended its deal through 2022.
“We’ve got fabulous financial security,” Doyle said.
But what about the field, the modern-day yardstick by which many fans and media will grade the tournament’s importance? Mindful that Palmer no longer is around to entice players to show up, tournament officials met with representatives of the PGA Tour, Golf Channel, MasterCard and the Palmer family in December to discuss the future. Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who lives in Orlando, was asked to attend and add the players’ perspective.
“Obviously, ’17 is going to be a special year, and it’s going to be a very poignant year on a lot of levels,” said McDowell, who is serving as one of five co-hosts this week. “How do you take ’18, ’19 and ’20 and obviously continue Palmer’s legacy and keep Bay Hill a very, very relevant golf tournament?”
Over the years, more than a few players have griped about the course, prompting plenty of tinkering from Palmer himself. The greens have been rebuilt three times since 2001, and the course has played to pars of 70, 71 and 72. McDowell called the layout “a polarizing golf course on a lot of levels, and a lot of guys don’t like it.”
The venue nonetheless has produced an impressive list of champions, including former world No. 1s Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh and Jason Day. Hall of Famers Ben Crenshaw, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite and Mickelson also won at Bay Hill.
This year’s schedule didn’t help the tournament draw star power. World Golf Championships were set two weeks before and the week after Bay Hill, siphoning off many of the top 50. Among those absent this week are No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson, all top-20 players. Some of their reasons were better than others.
Comparisons have been made with the Byron Nelson Championship. Over the final years of his life, Nelson famously would park a chair behind the 18th green and greet golfers as they finished. Starting in 2007, the year after Nelson died, the event’s strength-of-field rating fell by more than half, reducing it to a mid-tier tournament.
Palmer’s grandson, PGA Tour member Sam Saunders, tried his best to be diplomatic about the API field.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed,'' Saunders told ESPN.
Tour veteran Charles Howell III, who has lived in Orlando since he turned pro in 2000 and whose two children were born in the hospital facility bearing the Palmer name, hopes the forward-looking changes made by the event will ensure that it remains among the Tour’s elite stops.
“I’m speaking with my heart, too, because I live there and I want the tournament to do well, but I think in five years, it’s going to be great,” he said. “There is no reason why it shouldn’t be great.”
He might well be right, but only if his high-profile peers are listening.