Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer is 85 years old. This week he will again serve as host to his own Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando. For true golf fans this is one of the most precious weeks on the golf calendar. Not even the great ones like Palmer can defy age. Who knows how many more of these Bay Hill events The King will be able to host?

The top five players in the Official World Golf Rankings- Rory McIlroy; Bubba Watson; Henrik Stenson; Adam Scott and Jason Day will all be in this week’s field. This is a fitting tribute to Palmer and what he did to forge the modern day game. Still, many of golf’s top players will not be at Bay Hill this week and that is too bad because this should be an event that all PGA TOUR players mark on their calendars. 

Spending a week with Arnold Palmer at this stage in his life is being in rarified air. Even his age, Palmer has a lot to offer today’s players. He is still a mentor, a great sportsman and someone who players can learn from. But, more than that, playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational is a fitting way to say thanks to the guy who made today’s multi-million dollar purses possible.

Several years ago during the week of Bay Hill, Palmer talked about his commitment to the PGA TOUR during his early days as a professional golfer. He spoke of the obligation that he felt to attend cookouts and cocktail parties early in the week of TOUR events as a display of support to the tournament sponsors who put up the hard work and dollars. Playing in the weekly pro-am was something Palmer said he looked forward to.

More revealing was hearing Palmer say that he felt an obligation to play in every PGA TOUR stop at least once in a three or four year period of time. He admitted that it was impossible to commit to every tournament in a given year, but Palmer recognized the importance of his presence to all tournament sponsors.

Many of today’s top players will commit to a schedule that only includes 15-17 events per year. This includes the four major championships, The Players Championship plus the five World Golf Championship events. Unfortunately for the rest of the regular TOUR stops that doesn’t leave much support from the game’s top players. This was evident during the West Coast swing earlier this winter when most of the top players skipped all or most of the events.

Granted the landscape of today’s professional game is different than it was back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when Palmer was making his mark on the TOUR. Today’s players are earning millions from outside endorsements and they simply don’t need to play in 25-30 events per year. This is unhealthy for the long-term stability of the professional game. 

To Palmer’s credit, even at age 85, when his game has deserted him, he shows up at Augusta National and plays in the Par 3 tournament. He fell this winter and injured his shoulder, but he will still attempt to hit the ceremonial first tee shot to start the 2015 Masters. People don’t care where the tee shot goes. So what if Arnie tops a shot in the Par 3? This might be your last chance to see Arnold Palmer swing a golf club. 

On two occasions I had the opportunity to meet with Palmer in his second floor Bay Hill office overlooking the course he built. The first time was on the Monday after his tournament in 2013 and the subject was the proposed ban of the anchored stroke. The next time was in May 2014 and the subject was his father, Deacon, and the formation of an award by the PGA of America to recognize Palmer’s father for his accomplishments in golf.

Each time I entered Palmer’s office my heart was pounding with anticipation knowing that I was in the presence of possibly the most influential person in the sport’s history. His office is cluttered with memorabilia and family photos. Two large leather arm chairs sit in front of his desk. His big yellow lab, Mulligan, will either greet you in the receiving area outside the office or quietly keep an eye on you while softly panting on the floor next to The King. 

Palmer still has the charisma and the charm. He can still stare you down with that stern look that makes your knees tremble. His hand shake is extremely firm. The twinkle still exists in those aging eyes. The infectious smile that won the hearts of millions still comes easy for Palmer. But, sadly Arnold Palmer is entering the winter of his great life.

This is a very special week in golf. We never know when an Arnold Palmer Invitational might be the last of its kind. These are the final pages of history being turned.