Turning Back the Clock at Bay Hill

By Mercer BaggsMarch 19, 2003, 5:00 pm
ORLANDO, Fla. -- He walks along the Bay Hill grounds to the constant chirping of his name. Parents shift their childrens captive attention away from fluttering butterflies in order to catch a glimpse ' so they can one day say they saw him, even if they dont really remember.
He commands attention, without the demand. Autograph hounds sniff him out. They offer their pen, a picture, and a memory. He obliges with a signature and a smile.
Hes the man many have come to see. The Man at Bay Hill. And hes not the three-time defending champion.
No, this isnt Tiger Woods of which is written. Its Arnold Palmer. The King.
For the 50th consecutive year, Palmer will compete in a PGA Tour event as a professional, and he will do so in the tournament he hosts. Appropriately enough, he will also do so with his grandson, 15-year-old current Bay Hill Club champion Sam Saunders, on his bag, and alongside his greatest rival.
Jack Nicklaus and Palmer were playing in last weeks Gary Player Invitational when the subject of charity turned to competition.
I told Arnold that I really needed to play some more golf before the Masters, Nicklaus said Tuesday, and I really didnt want to travel out to the West Coast just for three days of golf. He said, Well, why dont you come to Bay Hill?
Nicklaus was uncertain of the prospect, even though Palmer stated, If you play, Ill play.
The 63-year-old had reservations about taking a regular tour players spot in the tournament, but Palmer settled the issue when he got tour officials to agree to add to the field.
And here I am, Nicklaus said.
This is Jacks first trip to Bay Hill since 1995, when he shot 79 in the first round and withdrew.
Tuesday, he shot 1-over 73 in the pro-am ' 13 strokes lower than that of Palmer, who was playing two groups in front. Nicklaus wasnt on site Wednesday, as he had to attend a prior commitment in his native Columbus, Ohio. He will fly back at night, well before his 1:00 PM ET first-round tee time.
Unfortunately for many fans, Palmer will not be in that group. He will also go out at 1:00, but on the 10th tee along with Robert Damron and J.P. Hayes.
Im sure that Jack and I are sort of indifferent about it, Palmer said of not being paired together. Matter of fact, we didnt really discuss it, but I think it worked out just fine the way it is.
This may be the last time the two compete in the same PGA Tour event. When asked if he would play in Jacks tournament, The Memorial, Palmer replied: I doubt that Ill play at Muirfield. I might go there but I dont know that Ill play.
He then added with a smile: Jack hasnt invited me yet.
Normally, you could see the two tee it up at Augusta National, but last year the powers that be decided not to extend its former life-long invitation to past champions to those older than 65. Palmer doesnt like the change, but it doesnt alter his love affair with the tournament or the venue.
I am very, very fond of Augusta. I think that if theres a place that I had to go, it would be Augusta, and Im disappointed in a lot of things that have happened, said Palmer, who didnt want to state his opinion on the clubs gender policy.
But if the good Lord is willing, Ill be going to Augusta a lot and will continue to go there. I cant tell you what it means to me.
Palmer, who like Nicklaus is a member at Augusta National, added that he had no intention of being a ceremonial starter in the event any time soon, with the passing of Sam Snead and Byron Nelsons decision not to hit the tournaments first shot.
Neither Palmer nor Nicklaus desire to be ceremonial. They each cling to the memories fading in the horizon. Memories of 133 combined tour victories and 25 total major championships.
But not everything positive is left in the past. Spectators are abundant when either man is on hand. They want a chance to see their heroes, to relive those memories, to maybe even trade a gesture.
And Palmer is grateful. Its what drives him to compete at the age of 73. What keeps him going when hes already shot his age by the 16th hole. Its why he says every year that this will be his last, and why every year he continues to return.
Im glad Im playing, he said. Im not happy with the way Im playing. Physically, Im not as good as I should be.
Hopefully, Ill feel better tomorrow and be able to do the things that I want to do on the golf course.
The skin has loosed a little over the years, and the sun has set deep in the crinkles of his rugged exterior. Its the look of a man who has lived life, and lived it well. A man who has played golf with presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H. Bush. A man who has played horseshoe with George W. A man who has seen Hitler try and conquer the world, and is about to bare witness to yet another war.
Palmer said the tournament ' in its 25th year at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, the course that Palmer bought in 1979 ' would continue regardless of incidents outside the Orlando area. He said its what should be done, and part of what helps balance those who are protecting us.
I dont think its unpatriotic to have a sporting event going on. I think those people over there that are fighting and away from home look to see what were doing, he said.
I think their morale would be lesser if we stopped doing all these things.
A year ago, Palmer was playing a practice round at this event with good friend and Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. Times were uncertain then, and even more so now.
But Palmer has faith in those who lead. In addition to his Pennsylvania connection with Ridge, hes a family friend of the nations First Family. Being Arnold Palmer affords you friends in high places. But his deepest relationships are formed with Everyman ' blue- or white-collared, male or female, black or white, adult or child. Those who fell in love with the swashbuckling, cigarette-smoking, major-winning cool of cool back then, and those who love the cart-riding, body-aching, 86-shooting grandfather now.
People never seem to stop rooting for you, even though they know that things are getting to the point where theres little chance of winning a golf tournament, he said. My motivation is the game itself and the people that Ive been associated with for more than 50 years.
The game is so fascinating. Im seeing the same things when Im coming down as I saw coming up on the other end, and thats fascinating to me.
Just as he is to those who still watch him play.
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