ORLANDO, Fla. – Marc Leishman’s victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational wasn’t even three hours old Sunday when crews began to deconstruct some of the tournament signage and grandstands.
Just like that, they were on to next year.
The first edition of the API without its beloved host was by any measure a resounding success. A strong field assembled. Bay Hill Club & Lodge was presented immaculately. Players and fans paid homage to one of golf’s patriarchs. And Sunday evening, a deserving champion was crowned, as Leishman slipped into a red cardigan sweater, one of Palmer’s favorite pieces of outerwear, not the usual blue blazer.
The PGA Tour has done its part to preserve the legacy of Palmer’s event. The tournament has been elevated in stature, as it raised the purse from $6.3 million to $8.7 million, and offered a three-year exemption to the winner, not the usual two-year free pass.
“This is a new day,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
And now the fate of Arnie’s event is in the players’ hands.
For all of the pre-tournament kvetching about the jam-packed schedule and strength of field, four of the top 5 players in the world, and 14 of the top 25, came here to Orlando – the second-best showing at the API in the past decade.
When a player plots out his schedule, two of the most important factors are timing and course.
The API is in a difficult spot on the Tour schedule, sandwiched between a pair of World Golf Championship events with the Masters beginning in three weeks. That time crunch doesn’t figure to get any easier in the future, especially if The Players returns to March, as has been rumored.
“We want to put this tournament in the best possible position to succeed,” Monahan said.
What won’t change is the course, and Bay Hill, like most venues on Tour, is either loved or hated by players. Those who play Arnie’s Place each year say that it proves a good test for Augusta, with its premium on ball-striking and speedy greens.
“It was bittersweet,” said Brandt Snedeker. “The best year I’ve ever seen it, he wasn’t here. He would have taken pride and he would have loved a day like (Sunday), seeing us struggle out there. This was his baby, and he didn’t want anybody shooting 7 or 8 under par on it. He would have been smiling all day.”
Graeme McDowell had a unique perspective last week as one of five co-hosts but the only one who played in the tournament. Asked a few months ago to become an ambassador for the event, McDowell views his role as a liaison between the players and tournament officials. That meant attending various pre-tournament functions and soliciting feedback from his peers.
McDowell said Palmer’s loss was felt most on the 18th green Sunday. Palmer usually stood atop the slope to the left of the green, congratulating and thanking players for coming to his event. This year, those duties were handled by past tournament chairmen.
“To look over and be one of the last groups and not see Arnie up on the hill,” Rickie Fowler said, “it’s definitely different.”
And so players were left to honor Palmer in their own way. Fowler, for instance, wore custom shoes with Palmer’s image on the sides and signature on the strap. (He left the shoes and his hat in Palmer’s office, with the message: “We miss you!! Much love!!”) Many players signed a commemorative flag and posed in front of the bronze statue and stitched the colorful umbrella logo on their hats, shirts and bags.
Other tributes were less visible.
“This week was an unsaid opportunity for guys to conduct themselves the way they should and learn from a role model like Palmer,” McDowell said. “Every time I signed an autograph, I’ve made more of an effort. That’s just a subconscious thing.
“It was an opportunity for players to ask themselves: Am I being a role model for kids? Am I doing the right things? How can I be a better professional and a better person?”
The concern is that the API will lose its luster just like the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship has after the tournament’s namesake died in 2006. That year, six of the top 10 players in the world showed up. Four years later, it had only two of the top 20.
The tournament, won last year by Sergio Garcia, usually draws a top-heavy field, with Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth among the recent participants. But it offered only 48 world-ranking points to the winner – or less than the Travelers Championship. With money no longer an inducement to the world’s best players, officials hope a venue change (to Trinity Forest) will help fortify the field.
McDowell is aware that there’s only so much he and the rest of the API tournament committee can do off the course to make the event a must-stop for Tour players.
“There’s only so many bottles of vodka and fillets you can feed them in the players’ lounge,” McDowell said. “We’re spoiled on a week-to-week basis. All these events fight for the .1 percent that keeps guys coming back, but you’re fighting an uphill battle there. If the schedule doesn’t work or the guys don’t like the course, there’s a good chance they’re not going to be there.”
The PGA Tour has done all it can to make these legacy events feel bigger, more relevant and more important.
Whether they survive is solely up to the players.