Palmer is gone but his spirit lives on at Bay Hill

The tournament that evolved into the Arnold Palmer Invitational will be played for the 51st time this week, but “The King” will not be there to hold court — other than in spirit.

Palmer, universally recognized as the most popular and revered figure in the history of the game, died in September at age 87, and the show will go on without him.

It will never be the same.

Not only did Palmer (pictured with defending champion Jason Day of Australia) serve as tournament host, but he also was highly visible throughout tournament week, greeting players and pro-am participants, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, and watching play near the 16th green at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla.

Then he would present the trophy to the winner on Sunday afternoon.

Arnie could not be replaced by only one person, so tournament officials have selected golf greats Peter Jacobsen, Graeme McDowell, Annika Sorenstam and Curtis Strange, plus Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security and a family friend, to share his duties.

“Arnold was a force of nature, on and off the course,” said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion who also will be in the tournament field. “We can’t fill his shoes, but we can carry on his passion for helping others. I live with my family in Orlando, and my children were born at Winnie Palmer Hospital, so I’ve been a direct beneficiary of Arnold’s charitable legacy. I’m honored to be part of such a remarkable event.”

There was never a fan Arnie didn’t have time for, an autograph he couldn’t sign, a picture he couldn’t pose for or a good cause he couldn’t support.

Oh, and he was a pretty good player, too, posting 95 professional victories around the world, including seven major titles.

Some of his peers are among his biggest fans.

“It’s a great honor,” Jacobsen said of being asked to be part of the tournament. “There are a lot of great things planned.”

On Saturday, a 13-foot bronze statue of Palmer was unveiled at Bay Hill, just in time for tournament week. It is a replica of the one that stands at Wake Forest University, Palmer’s alma mater.

The statue, weighing 1,392 pounds, depicts Palmer as he finishes his somewhat unorthodox but powerful swing, said to be taken from an image of Arnie about the time of his victory in the 1964 Masters.

“There will be no ropes or fences around this statue,” said Marci Doyle, chief operating officer of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “It will be infinitely approachable, just like Mr. Palmer.”

The tournament was first played as the Florida Citrus Open in 1966 at Rio Pinar Country in Orlando, where Lionel Hebert won the inaugural event by one stroke over Jack Nicklaus, Charles Coody and Dick Lytle.

Palmer finished second the following year and in 1970 before claiming the title the next year by one shot over Julius Boros.

Arnie was born and raised in Latrobe, Pa., and that always was his primarily residence, but he enjoyed Central Florida so much that in 1970 he took a five-year lease with an option to buy Bay Hill, taking ownership in 1975.

Then he negotiated to have Bay Hill become host site of the Florida Citrus Invitational and the tournament was called the Bay Hill Invitational until taking Palmer’s name in 2007.

Tiger Woods, who can’t play this week because of ongoing back problems, has won the tournament a record eight times, the last in 2013, while Gary Koch, Tom Kite, Loren Roberts, Ernie Els and Matt Every each won it twice.

Bay Hill has long been one of the more popular stops on the PGA Tour, and this week Day will lead a field that includes major champions Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Justin Rose of England, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer of Germany, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Zach Johnson, Danny Willett of England, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Webb Simpson, Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Vijay Singh of Fiji, Trevor Immelman of South Africa, John Daly, Retief Goosen of South Africa, McDowell and Els.

Other top players entered are Every, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Ryan Moore, Ian Poulter of England, Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, Brooks Koepka, Brandt Snedeker, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, Paul Casey of England, Harris English,

Tommy Fleetwood of England and Aaron Baddeley of Australia.

Many are coming to pay their respects to Palmer and have special memories of Bay Hill and Arnie, most notably Day.

“It’s obviously a memory that is very special, that I’ll always carry with me, to think I was the last player to sit down and have that celebratory drink with him after winning,” said Day, whose one-stroke victory over Kevin Chappell last year helped him rise to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking when he won the WGC-Dell Match Play a week later.

“I look forward to going back simply because it holds so many good memories for me.”

Like everyone else this week, Day is a member of “Arnie’s Army.”

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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