PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Ernie Els will be among those returning to Bay Hill next week to honor the legacy of Arnold Palmer, but he understands why several top-ranked players may be absent.
This year marks the first edition of the tournament since Palmer’s death in September because of heart complications. While tournament officials had hoped to draw an elite field and the purse has increased significantly, only 10 of the top 25 players in the world are currently committed to play.
Els made one of his first PGA Tour starts at Arnold Palmer Invitational in 1993 when he was just 23 years old, and he won the event in both 1998 and 2010. He believes the Tour’s hectic spring schedule is largely to blame if the API field doesn’t measure up.
“The purse is up, but then the Tour has put in a World Golf Championship event last week, and guys need to rest,” Els said at the Valspar Championship. “Then there’s a WGC event after API, and then two weeks later you’ve got the Masters. So all of a sudden, you’ve got all these big events, and if they don’t play the world events then all hell breaks loose.”
This is the second straight year that Bay Hill is immediately followed by the WGC-Dell Match Play on the schedule. The event was played in February from 1999-2014 and May in 2015.
“We all absolutely respect what Mr. Palmer did, but I get the guys that just can’t play that week,” he said. “You’ve got certain priorities that you have to try to meet, and some of the guys just can’t do that. So you’ve got to take that for what it is. It’s no disrespect to Mr. Palmer.”
Els played the AT&T Byron Nelson eight times prior to Nelson’s death in 2006, and he watched the field strength for that event deteriorate significantly in the years that followed. He remains hopeful that Bay Hill can avoid a similar decline after the loss of its namesake.
“I would not like to see it, but it’s possible,” he said. “Maybe if the API guys get a date where they don’t sit right in the middle of the two World Golf Championship events, maybe they’ll get a better field.