ORLANDO, Fla. – In a lot of ways, Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational will be just like all the previous Sundays since 1979 at this event, when the Florida Citrus Open moved from nearby Rio Pinar Country Club to Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
An enthusiastic crowd will surround the 18th green, a deserving champion will be crowned, a big paycheck will be sent to his bank account, lots of money will have been raised for charities and the sun will set on another successful PGA Tour event.
But when the champion walks up the hill from the final green, it will be yet another reminder that every Sunday from now on at the API will be different. The King will not be waiting at the top of the hill to greet the winner with his customary firm handshake and megawatt smile. There won’t be a celebratory drink in the clubhouse and a personal letter signed with Palmer’s legible autograph won’t arrive a few weeks later in the mail.
Palmer’s death last September at age 87 left a void that will never be replaced. His tournament was one of the many incredible legacies he left behind, and many worried that after Palmer was gone this event would lose some luster.
That clearly hasn’t been the case.
For the players in contention, they know that even without Palmer waiting behind the 18th green to congratulate them on a well-played tournament, a win on Sunday will still be incredibly special.
Especially this year, the first without the King.
“It’s very different not having him around,” said Rickie Fowler, who is wearing custom shoes this week with a collage of Palmer pictures. “It’s just going to continue to get bigger, and this could potentially be the biggest week I think they could have here, just with the excitement of the tournament and kind of the celebration of Arnie’s life.”
That celebration started a week ago when a 13-foot bronze statue of Palmer was unveiled behind the first tee at Bay Hill. It continued throughout the week with various tributes. There was a driving range salute that was a capped off with a flyover by a Coast Guard helicopter. (Palmer served three years in the Coast Guard). A stretch of a local highway was named the “Arnold Palmer Expressway.” Several players are sporting Palmer’s umbrella logo on their clothes and golf bags.
Now the attention has shifted to where Palmer would have wanted it – on the tournament.
Fowler and Rory McIlroy may not win the tournament this year, but they ignited the crowds Saturday with a pair of 7-under 65s. Perhaps one of the young superstars will give Palmer another fitting tribute and author a thrilling Sunday charge.
Charley Hoffman, who shares the 54-hole lead with Kevin Kisner (68), gave the third round a stunning conclusion. Kisner appeared to be heading into the final round with a comfy lead, but Hoffman birdied the last three holes, including a 71-foot putt on 18, to grab a share of the lead with a 1-under 71.
At 11 under, Hoffman and Kisner are three strokes clear of Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Fitzpatrick and Marc Leishman.
The contenders will be solely focused on winning tomorrow, but there’s no doubt that even without Palmer here to watch the drama unfold, his tournament still has a special aura that will never leave.
“To be in position [to win] at Arnie’s event is a special spot,” Hoffman said. “It’s right up there with competing in a major championship, there’s no question. Mr. Palmer was the King, there’s a reason why he had the name … To keep his legacy going and win this event would be something special.”
Kisner joked he’s just trying to avoid a playoff Sunday (he’s 0-3 in his career), but a win at Bay Hill would no doubt be the highlight of his six years on the PGA Tour.
“If I did win I sure wish he was here to have a drink with him afterwards, that’s for sure,” Kisner said of Palmer. “It would be a pretty unbelievable thing to have on my résumé and add that trophy to my trophy case.”