MIAMI: Arnold Palmer will loom large over the Bay Hill Club & Lodge this week as the tournament which bears the golf legend’s name takes place for the first time since his death.
Australia’s defending champion Jason Day and world number three Rory McIlroy will headline an event which is expected to unfurl as a four-day celebration of the life of one of golf’s most beloved figures.
Palmer, who died last September aged 87, is widely credited with transforming golf during his glittering playing career, broadening the sport’s appeal while building a worldwide legion of devoted fans known as “Arnie’s Army.”
Those admirers at Bay Hill in Orlando this week will get the chance to honor Palmer before a newly installed 13-foot statue of the golfer which was unveiled last weekend between the first and 10th holes.
Officials say fans will be encouraged to touch the statue and take selfies beside it, reflecting the down-to-earth, approachable qualities that Palmer became famous for.
“Bay Hill this week, it is going to be pretty emotional,” reigning Masters champion Danny Willett said Tuesday, revealing that many players would honor Palmer by sporting multi-colored umbrella pins, a symbol which became synonymous with the American.
“I think the whole vibe of the place is going to be great. We remember him for the great man he was and what he did for the game, but I think it’s going to be a celebration of what he did for the game.
“You can see everything, when you walk through the doors, everything just oozes with class, and that’s the guy that he was.
“I think it’s all going to make for an unbelievable week.”
While honoring Palmer by playing this week’s event was a no-brainer for many professionals, some have raised eyebrows at the notable figures who have decided to give the tournament a miss.
World number one Dustin Johnson, American star Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott will all be absent as they tailor their schedules towards next month’s Masters at Augusta.
The fact that more than half of the world’s top 25 won’t tee it up in Florida has dismayed some who argue that modern-day golf, and the millions that flow into the sport, are directly attributable to Palmer’s trailblazing career.
“Disappointing,” was the verdict of Billy Horschel in a Twitter post last week. “Totally understand schedule issues. But first year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn’t be in position we are in today.”
British Open champion Henrik Stenson agreed that playing Bay Hill was a good way of recognizing Palmer’s legacy.
“There’s going to be some special tributes to his life so I’m sure it’s going to be a great week and we’re going to do our best to honor him,” Stenson said.
Former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen said he intended to play the tournament as often as possible in future.
“I just think it’s a tournament that, if you can, you should play it every year,” he said.
Sam Saunders, Arnold Palmer’s grandson who is a player on the PGA Tour, said he understood why some players were skipping the event, but called on fellow professionals to ensure the tournament thrived for generations to come.
“It’s very important to golf to keep what we’ve done, to keep the Arnold Palmer Invitational relevant,” Saunders said.
“His was such a good example. We all get to play for a lot of money, but it’s about trying to do things other than just being out here for yourself.
“That’s what he did so well.” --AFP