ORLANDO, Fla. – A few years ago Greg Owen walked into Arnold Palmer’s office at Bay Hill to drop off a letter requesting a sponsor exemption into the King’s PGA Tour event.
Owen had done this before, but this time was different. This time he was asked if he’d like to hand deliver the letter to the tournament host.
“It was really unusual for me, I was speechless,” Owen said. “He was sitting behind his desk, he started the conversation because I didn’t know what to say.”
Nearly everyone has an Arnie story, and this week’s event at Bay Hill, the first since Palmer passed away last September, will be a celebration of those stories as much as it will be a chance to honor one of the game’s most endearing players.
But Owen’s story is a little different.
On Tuesday, Danny Willett talked at length about a letter he received from Palmer following his victory last year at the Masters. Rory McIlroy tweeted a similar letter the King sent him in 2011 after he’d won the U.S. Open.
Owen didn’t get one of those letters, but his correspondence may have been even more memorable.
The Englishman’s first encounter with Palmer came in 2006, his second year on Tour, after he’d played three solid rounds at Bay Hill. He birdied the 10th hole on Sunday, added another at No. 14 and took a one-stroke lead with a birdie on the 16th hole.
Owen joined Bay Hill about five years ago and like many who were lucky enough to be in regular contact with Palmer, he marveled at his ability to connect with everyone, from fellow professionals to his legend of fans.
But Owen’s connection was profoundly different.
“You’d see him in the locker room and he knew who you were,” Owen said. “One time he introduced me to his wife and said, ‘This is Greg Owen, he was the unlucky guy.”
The unlucky guy had stood over a 3-footer for par at the 17th hole at the ’06 Arnold Palmer Invitation that would have given him a two-stroke lead. Owen pushed the putt and the comebacker from 18 inches danced around the hole and refused to fall for a double bogey-5. He bogeyed the 72nd hole after airmailing the green with his approach shot and finished a stroke behind Rod Pampling.
Palmer sent Owen a letter following that loss at a moment when he needed it the most. His runner-up showing to Pampling had moved him to 48th in the Officical World Golf Ranking and the next week at The Players he finished 22nd only to drop to 52nd in the world, two spots outside a start at that season’s Masters.
“It obviously wasn’t a very easy time for me,” Owen recalled. “I was really disappointed and then I got this letter. You could see it was personal, every word he’d thought about and wrote on. You could tell.
“The fact that he’d lost majors from a winning position, that he‘d been through it you could tell he was talking from the heart. What situation in golf hadn’t he been in? He understood how it was.”
The single-page letter gave condolences, but also congratulations for how he’d handled defeat, a part of the Palmer persona that was as appealing as any victory celebration.
By the time Owen became a member at Bay Hill, Palmer wasn’t playing much golf because of age and injury. But Owen would see him on the practice tee from time to time, tinkering with a new driver or wedge. “He’d always have a bunch of clubs with him,” he recalled.
Sometimes Palmer would be tooling around in a golf cart and stop behind Owen who was hitting balls on the range. He would stop practicing. “I didn’t want to be critiqued,” Owen laughed.
Everything about Bay Hill is a testament to Palmer, from the sign requesting players remove their hats before entering the clubhouse, to the daily “shootout” among members.
Many days Palmer would be waiting when players finished the regular game in Bay Hill’s rustic locker room with words of encouragement and the occasional needle.
“He’d sit around the table with the guys playing cards asking questions, ‘How’d you play?’” Owen said. “He was such a nice guy, there’s no other way to put it. He never forgot, he was just great with everybody.”
For Owen, that connection was very real. At perhaps the lowest point of his career, the man who was so seamlessly connected to greatness made the realities of failure something to be embraced and learned from.
It at least partially explains why Owen gravitated to Bay Hill in an attempt, subconscious or otherwise, to be closer to that kind of gravitational pull. On Tuesday, as he made his way down the 10th fairway during a practice round, Owen shrugged at the thought. For the 45-year-old, it was a little more straightforward then that.
“Playing at a club with Arnie, watching him up there hitting balls, that’s pretty cool,” he smiled.