Palmer tourney a time for celebration, not sorrow

By Ryan LavnerMarch 15, 2017, 6:33 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – This is not a week for mourning.

Oh, no, not at all.

Just as Arnold Palmer’s service last fall was a celebration of his outsized life, his eponymous tournament has become a way for players, the PGA Tour and the local community here to give thanks to the beloved American icon who died last September at age 87.

“I definitely don’t think this tournament has taken on a somber atmosphere at all,” Rory McIlroy said. “It should be a celebration of what has been a great life.”

The celebration began last Saturday, with the unveiling of the 13-foot, 1,392-pound bronze statue – similar to the one at Palmer’s alma mater, Wake Forest – behind the first tee. There is no velvet rope around the sculpture, no security guard out front. That’s not Arnie. No, just like the approachable megastar, fans are encouraged to get up close to the statue. To touch it. To take selfies with it.

Each player has a special way to honor Arnie.

Many have walked into Palmer’s office, virtually untouched last fall, to sign a commemorative flag. Rickie Fowler will wear custom shoes with Palmer’s image on the sides and signature across the strap. Morgan Hoffmann, who was inspired by Palmer to earn his private pilot’s license, has three custom wedges this week: a 52-degree with “Iced Tea & Lemonade,” Palmer’s favorite drink, engraved on the back of the club; a 58-degree etched with “The King”; and a 62-degree stamped with Palmer’s Citation plane and wing number. Many golf balls will feature Palmer’s signature umbrella, and that logo will be stitched into bags and hats and shirts.

Said Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson: “I hope the players and fans remember and can still feel my grandfather’s presence here this week. I know I do. I think all of us do.”

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Saunders was tasked with opening the Wednesday meeting with the press, which was Palmer’s annual “State of the King” address to riff on a variety of topics. Flanked by Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, Saunders, the third-year Tour player, joked, “I don’t quite know why I’m here …” but he filled in admirably (as he did at the service last fall) as the family frontman.

Never has it been more of a team effort.

Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell was summoned for a board meeting last December to share what made this tournament great from a player’s perspective and how, in the future, it can be even better. Those discussions led McDowell, who lives in nearby Lake Nona, to be named part of the tournament host committee, along with Sorenstam, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobson and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. As the only active player-host, McDowell views himself as a tournament ambassador. “If there was ever a week to educate players on how to carry themselves, this would be an ideal opportunity,” he said.

Added Sorenstam: “We’re not here to fill the shoes of Mr. Palmer, but rather just continue to carry the torch that he has started and that he has been carrying for a long time.” 

The Tour elevated the API last March, when they bumped the purse from $6.3 million to $8.7 million and offered a three-year exemption to the winner, not the usual two. Monahan described the foundation of the tournament as “incredibly solid,” despite some of the handwringing from players and media types about the perceived poor turnout this year. Here at Bay Hill are four of the top five players in the world, and 14 of the top 25. 

“It is a selfless thing to come and play in this event this week and guys are really making an effort to make it about them. They’re here from their heart,” Saunders said. “They’re playing because they know that my grandfather was able to give them a career, give them an opportunity to play golf for a living.”

It was Saunders, 29, who led players onto the range Wednesday morning for the opening ceremony.

Tournament officials planned for 25 players but instead needed two waves to accommodate the roughly 75 that showed up. A video montage appeared on the electronic leaderboard, with reflections from some of the game’s legends, and a U.S. Coast Guard chopper made a flyover.

“This moment right here,” Saunders said, “would mean the world to my grandfather. Let’s hit this one hard.”

And so, one by one, they lashed at their tee shots into a cold, stiff breeze. It was golf’s version of the 21-gun salute. Defending champion Jason Day, playing in the pro-am, stopped by as he made the turn, borrowing another player’s club to pipe a drive, then signed a ball and dumped it into the bucket that will be auctioned off for charity.

Other remembrances this week are more subtle.

Palmer’s golf bag is positioned on the far-right corner of the range, his favorite spot to dig it out of the dirt.

His cart (with two sets of clubs on the back, as usual) is stationed behind the 16th tee, his favorite spot to watch golf.

And some of the trophies and medals from his office are available for viewing throughout the course.

“It’s not just about this year, although clearly this is a very important tribute year,” said tournament director Marci Doyle. “We are here to make it bigger and better every year, because that was Mr. Palmer’s mantra.”

What will happen Sunday remains to be seen. For four decades, Palmer greeted players as they walked off the 18th green. He complimented them on their fine play. He thanked them for taking the time to play his event. Members of the tournament host committee likely will fill that role now, but it won’t – it can’t – engender the same emotions.

“We’re not trying to replace him,” Doyle said.

But they are trying to remember him, and so the winners here no longer will receive a blue blazer – they will instead don a red cardigan sweater, Palmer’s favorite choice of outerwear.

Yes, from the tournament’s start to its finish, there are little touches of Arnie everywhere.

“He would probably wish us all to be celebrating rather than commiserating this week,” McDowell said, “and I think it will be a celebration.”

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.