The Arnold Palmer Invitational embarks on its first outing since the passing of its legendary namesake this week – leaving the tournament without it’s King.
In a week that will no doubt be enshrouded in emotion, it will be important for all involved in the event in Orlando to create a celebration of his legacy rather than a mourning of his passing. After all, that’s what #ArnieWould have wanted.
Numerous players are paying tribute this week with images of Palmer’s Umbrella logo on their clothing, clubs, balls and bags and a newly-installed bronze statue of the late King will now overlook the players on the first and 10th tees.
There has been much controversy over the number of players who have turned down the opportunity to play at the invite-only event and mark their respects with an appearance, with invitations only guaranteed for the top 70 from the previous year’s money-list. With the event sitting between two World Golf Championships and the Masters it may been seen as too great a distraction for those opting out, including the likes of world-number-one Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson.
Despite significant absentees, the field is very strong from the top this year with four of the world’s top five playing at Bay Hill; the aforementioned Johnson being the exception.
Jason Day enters as the defending champion after a one stroke victory over Kevin Chappell last time out following a superb up-and-down from the bunker on the 72nd hole to maintain his lead having already lost and regained it during the final round. The Australian would then go on to win the WGC-Dell Match Play the following week for a return to world-number-one.
Henrik Stenson has a second, tied third, tied fifth and tied 10th finish in his last four starts but has never managed a win here. Rory McIlroy has only made two starts and failed to make the top 10 at either attempt whilst Hideki Matsuyama, under the same number of appearances, does have a tied sixth finish last year to show for his presence.
Joining Jason Day as a returning past winner will be back-to-back successor – in 2014 and 2015 – Matt Every who rose to world number 40 with his 2015 win but now finds himself down in 927th. Every did miss the cut in his title defense last year, though. Martin Laird (2011), Ernie Els (2010 and 1998), Vijay Singh (2007), Rod Pampling (2006) and Tim Herron (1999) complete the list of returning holders of the title.
There will be no appearance again for the tournament’s most successful competitor, you guessed it, Tiger Woods; with eight wins, including four consecutive years from 2000 to 2003, Woods will be absent for the fourth year in a row and only his fifth year since 1996 as he continues to recover from injury.
This year marks the 52nd installation of the event which has run, under numerous names, since 1966; the Arnold Palmer Invitational naming was only adopted in 2007. Bay Hill Lodge and Club, hailed by its eventual owner Palmer as the best course in Florida, hosts again as it has every year since it took over from Rio Pinar Country Club in 1979. The course is a standard par 72 at just over 7400 yards with four par fives and four par threes apiece. The par fives are reachable and offer plenty of opportunities to gain a shot but a lot of the course’s relative length comes from stretched par threes. The course set up is very similar to its Floridian counterparts Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club and PGA National which will be a promising sign for recent winners on said courses, Adam Hadwin and Rickie Fowler.
Winning scores over recent years here have been mid-to-high teens, ranging from 13-under to 19-under-par since 2012. However, most notably, the last three years, and seven of the last 11, have been decided by just a one shot winning margin suggesting a closely fought event should be expected again.
There’s 500 FedExCup points on offer and a prize fund of $8.7million but, as is seemingly the case with all events at the moment, more significant reward comes from warm-up practice for the Masters.
Put golf aside, though. This week is a celebration of the life and legacy of golf’s late King.