ORLANDO, Fla. – Fans entering the Arnold Palmer Invitational walk through a tent filled with moments and memories of the King, from the winners of his Bay Hill tournament to the tournaments he won in a career that made him one of golf’s most enduring figures.
Five players sat on bar stools late Wednesday evening during a chat with sponsors, all sharing stories of when they first met Palmer.
Kevin Stadler recalls being a 10-year-old in awe of meeting this larger-than-life figure. He used to come to Bay Hill with his father, former Masters champion Craig Stadler.
Daniel Chopra is a member at Bay Hill. He remembers first joining the club, seeing Palmer for the first time, shocked that Palmer knew who he was and that Palmer would walk over to introduce him.
“I haven’t met a lot of royalty,” Chopra said. “But that’s what it felt like.”
The Arnold Palmer Invitational gets under way Thursday with a strong field – Steve Stricker, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk among 11 of the 13 winners on the PGA Tour this year. That list doesn’t even include Phil Mickelson, a past winner.
Most of them put Bay Hill on the schedule because of Palmer, who owns Bay Hill.
Missing is the figurative owner – Tiger Woods.
It will be the first time that Woods has missed the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the only regular PGA Tour event he had never missed as a pro. Woods, who hasn’t played since a sex scandal over the Thanksgiving holiday, decided instead to make his return at the Masters.
“I will say we are disappointed Tiger isn’t here to play,” Palmer said.
That was all he had to say Wednesday, preferring to keep his opinions private at the moment. A reporter had asked it was time for the media to move on, and Palmer repeated those words.
But not for long.
When he gave a public apology before a worldwide television audience on Feb. 19, Woods said he needed to make his behavior “more respectful of the game” when he returned. Palmer then was asked how Woods might do that.
“I don’t think that’s my position to say,” he said. “I think it’s up to him to do and say whatever he feels he needs to do to redeem the situation, put it in the proper place. My opinion, as I said, I was going to keep to myself. But I suppose the best thing he could do would be open up and just let you guys shoot at him, and that’s just my thought.”
That chance will come April 5 at the Masters, as Augusta National sent out an interview schedule that featured Woods speaking at 2 p.m. on Monday of the Masters.
In the meantime, Palmer is more interested in his tournament, particularly his course.
Palmer had the entire crew from his design company revamp all the greens, replacing the sand base 18 inches deep, changes the strain of grass and altering the contours to allow for more hole locations.
The tee boxes were upgraded, and one was moved. The tournament tee for the 15th hole is now located on the other side of Bay Hill Boulevard. It measures 467 yards, eliminating the chance to cut the corner of the dogleg.
The scorecard certainly is different. After experimenting as a par 70 the last three years, Palmer thought it was better for Bay Hill to return as a par 72, restoring the fourth and 16th holes to par 5s to create more excitement at the end of the round.
“It’s not as quirky,” Stephen Ames said. “The changes are great. It’s more playable for everybody, not just the big hitters.”
The focus often shifts to the Masters this time of the year no matter what’s going on with Woods. Bay Hill always has been part of the critical buildup to the first major of the year.
But with Palmer as the host, and a course the players might find more agreeable, the tournament is getting its equal share of attention. That’s the way Stewart Cink is looking at it.
“I would like to drive the ball really well here and putt really well here and then I can go home saying, ‘I can’t wait to play in the Masters.’ And then I have to wait seven days, and that will probably go away,” he said.
“So I just want to play Bay Hill for Bay Hill, and try to have a great finish here, maybe win, and just get myself some confidence going into the Masters.”