ORLANDO, Fla. – For more than four decades, this has been the best Wednesday in golf. There were no competitions, faux or otherwise, no ceremonies or announcements, just a few minutes and the undivided attention of a legend.
Wednesdays at Bay Hill meant Arnold Palmer was coming to the media center for his annual “State of the King” news conference. These were always free-flowing affairs defined by the host’s unfiltered honesty and his ability to address any topic – from Tiger Woods’ most-recent accomplishments to the distance modern professionals hit the golf ball.
Whatever the subject, Palmer would answer, sometimes with an anecdote or a joke, sometimes with a wink and his signature thumbs up.
But this Wednesday at Bay Hill, there was no media meet-and-greet with Palmer, who passed away in September. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan spoke, so did Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders, who was so eloquent last year at the King’s funeral, but it wasn’t the same.
This week is being billed as a celebration of Palmer’s incredible life, so it only makes sense that today should be a celebration of those incredible Wednesdays with the King by revisiting some of his best stuff.
Although Palmer’s association with the tournament dates back to the 1970s, his first brush with Central Florida began well before that, as he explained in 2008:
“I came here the first time I think in ’48. I was a sophomore at Wake Forest and we played the men's golf team at Rollins [College].
“Our coach said, ‘What do you guys want to do? You can practice here or we can go on to the next match.’ We all voted to stay at Rollins because we were playing the girl's golf team and for the next two days we played the girl's golf team. That was a hell of a lot more fun than playing the men's golf team.”
There were always questions about Tiger Woods. So many Tiger questions, like in 2010:
“For me to tell Tiger what he should do, there's only one thing I can say and that's practice and confidence. Regain the confidence he had when he was starting out.”
Or in 2014 when Woods missed Bay Hill with a back injury, although the same answer could have applied to this year’s event:
“He didn't tell me how bad his back is. . . . I think he wanted to play golf this week. He just feels that he needs to take, whether it's this week, next week or the following week, to get ready for Augusta.”
There was a patented story he’d tell whenever a young player would ask him for advice:
“My father said when I left for the Tour, he wasn't too anxious for me to go on Tour. He said, ‘I'll tell you what, you go out there and listen to all those guys [swing coaches] out there and that tractor [at Latrobe Country Club] is still sitting down there and you can drive it when you come back. Well, I never went back because I did what he told me. Basic fundamentals.”
He would regularly be asked the state of his game, and he regularly dismissed those questions like he did in 2011:
“I hit it so far these days that I hear it land.”
Or in 2009:
“I play here in the ‘shootout’ [at Bay Hill] and most of these guys are accountants or stockbrokers or engineers or home builders, and they all beat me. And that tells you something about my golf. And I hate it, but I still love golf.”
One year he was asked what it’s like to be Arnold Palmer when someone orders an Arnold Palmer:
“I'm a little embarrassed. The guy says, ‘I'll have a Palmer,’ I don't think about it in first person. I think about, hey, thank you, have a couple.”
And, of course, he always told the best stories, like when he was asked the loudest cheer he ever heard on the golf course:
“It was probably on the 16th hole at Augusta in ’62 when [announcer] Jimmy Demaret was talking about the shot that I had. Demaret said, ‘He's got an impossible shot here, and to get it up‑and‑down will be a small miracle.’ I'm listening to him saying all of this and then I chipped it in [and won the Masters], and that was a loud cheer.”
Or the first time he played a practice round match against Ben Hogan at Augusta National in 1958:
“We got in the locker room and Dow [Finsterwald] and I had collected $35 [for winning the match], Hogan sat at another table and said, ‘How in the hell did he get in the Masters?’ Meaning me. Then I won the tournament.
“Hogan never called me by my first name. Never. I was ‘fella,’ or ‘hey,’ or something in that order. That didn't mean anything except that he probably didn't give a shit who I was.”
There would always be questions about the Arnold Palmer Invitational and his role as host:
“Last night, I entertained. You didn't know that, did you? I played a piano concert for them, very proud of it, too. And I will not elaborate.”
In 2004, Palmer played the event for the final time, an emotional week that included a magical par at his final hole:
“I suppose that I can't deny that I was thinking about this is probably the last time I'll do that. That's tough to think you're finished playing on the PGA Tour as a competitor.”
But most of all he relished the chance to talk about what the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his tournament, was really about:
“About 45 years ago I was asked if I'd put my name on the tournament for the hospital. I thought about it and I gave my rules for my name being on the hospital and the tournament.
“The Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies has come just thousands of miles over what we had anticipated.”
They were always the best Wednesdays and they will be missed. Arnie will be missed.