Rory and ‘The King’

Over the years, the world’s best golfers made the pilgrimage to Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., to pay homage to the man they call “The King.”

One notable exception was Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. Now the No. 1 player in the world rankings, McIlroy finally will make it to Central Florida this week to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“Priorities have changed, and it’s a big event,” said McIlroy, who next month with try to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters. “What Arnold Palmer has done for our game, and what he’s done for the PGA Tour, it was about time that I showed up there and played in his tournament.

“We wouldn’t play in front of as many people or in front of as many TV cameras, or play for as much (money without Palmer). Especially getting golf as a product out there, it all happened in the ’50s and ’60s. Arnold, (his agent) Mark McCormack, all that sort of started happening around then.

“If it wasn’t for that, who knows where our game would be? So I think we owe a lot to Arnold for that.”

But not enough to make it to Arnie’s place before now.

Palmer, who unsuccessfully recruited Rory for several years, was particularly upset in 2011 when McIlroy and Luke Donald of England, who was No. 1 in the world for 40 weeks that year, passed on the tournament. His unhappiness was due in part to Palmer’s personal history with their homeland.

Palmer is given credit for getting the top American players to return to the United Kingdom in the 1960s for the Open Championship, helping restore the stature of golf’s oldest championship.

“When I think back over the years, I went to the British Open to kind of enhance or to create additional interest in international golf,” said Palmer, who won the Open in 1961 at Royal Birkdale and again the following year at Royal Troon, eventually playing in the tournament 23 times.

“And to think that those people are now the top international players in the world, we’d like to have them here. We have a wonderful field and we are very proud of our field, but to have a couple of the top players internationally … not here, I’m kind of sorry for that.”

Palmer also joked in an interview on the Golf Channel that if McIlroy didn’t play in the tournament soon, “he may have a broken arm and he won’t have to worry about where he plays next.”

McIlroy, who forged a friendship with Jack Nicklaus since both live most of the year in South Florida, knew that Palmer was not pleased and sent him a letter several years ago, asking for an audience with “The King.”

Now, McIlroy will finally be part of Palmer’s invitational event.

McIlroy leads a strong field this week that includes Adam Scott of Australia, Masters champion Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Rickie Fowler, FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker, Jason Day of Australia, Zach Johnson, reigning FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, J.B. Holmes, Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Brandt Snedeker, Ernie Els of South Africa, Vijay Singh of Fiji, Harris English and defending champion Matt Every.

Also playing are rising young stars Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau, Chris Kirk and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.

However, Tiger Woods, who won at Bay Hill eight times, won’t be there. He is recovering from his latest injury and retooling his game.

“I am very pleased that Rory is going to be playing here,” a gracious Palmer said. “I have talked to Rory about playing here, and it didn’t work into his schedule in the past, but he told me that when it did work into his schedule that he would be here, and he is making good on his word.”

Other names on the trophy include Palmer, Els, Singh, Phil Mickelson, Julius Boros, Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Andy Bean, Tom Kite, Gary Koch, Fuzzy Zoeller, Payne Stewart, Paul Azinger, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Loren Roberts and Kenny Perry.

Palmer knows McIlroy would be a great addition.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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