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Preview: Arnold Palmer Invitational

by   |   March 21, 2012
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By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer

Men’s Journal magazine recently published an ultimate “bucket list” of things to do before you die.  And one item on the list was “shake hands with Arnold Palmer.”

Well you just might get a chance to shake the King’s hand this weekend at Bay Hill in Orlando, where he’s hosting the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.

But you’ll first need to get in.

Practice Pro-Am Badge … $35.

Any One-Day Ticket … $45.

Week-Long Bay Hill Badge … $300.

Walking off the green at No. 18, finding Mr. Palmer, shaking his hand, and also winning the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard (the 14th tournament of the PGA Tour season) in the process? … Priceless (winner’s share of the $6M purse notwithstanding).

The King’s tournament boasts a strong field this year, including 15 major champions, 10 previous Arnold Palmer Invitational winners, and 14 of the top 20 players in the FedExCup standings.

Notables in the field include Tiger Woods (returning from a strained left Achilles after withdrawing two weeks ago at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship), Phil Mickelson (a winner here in 1997, but more recently T-36 in 2007, T-21 in 2008, and T-30 in 2010), Justin Rose (winner at WGC-Cadillac and T-5 at the Honda Classic), Bubba Watson (ranked No. 1 in driving distance and greens-in-regulation), Ernie Els (the World No. 62 needing a win this week or next week at the Shell Houston Open to get into the Masters through ranking), and defending champion Martin Laird.

Prominently absent this weekend are the top six players on the Official World Golf Rankings list, including World No. 1 Luke Donald (who reclaimed the top spot with his fifth career PGA Tour win last week at Transitions), No. 2 Rory McIlroy (World No. 1 for two weeks), and No. 3 Lee Westwood (No. 1 for 22 weeks).

“I’m disappointed that they are not here, no question about it,” Palmer told reporters on Wednesday.  “I’m certainly not happy that those fellas chose not to come this year.”

But always the gentleman, and even showing a glimpse of that legendary Palmer grace and bravado, “The King” added wryly with a smile, “I had a letter from Rory seeking my consultation and (he) told me he wasn’t coming. And of course that made me feel great.”

“And if you believe that, I’ll talk to you outside afterwards.”

Bay Hill Makeover

Bay Hill is the last stop on the “Florida Swing” and stretches nearly 7,400 yards.  With 150 acres of thick rough that can grow nearly four inches tall, 80 bunkers and seven water hazards, it’s the eighth toughest course on the PGA Tour (of 51 courses played in 2011).  And closing holes No. 16, No. 17, and No. 18 are particularly troublesome.

When Palmer redesigned the course in 2009, he had this tournament in mind, wanting to make the course as visually intimidating as it is aesthetically beautiful.

First, he pushed the fairway bunkers out so big hitters can’t just bomb it off the tee with impunity.

Then, he pulled the greenside bunkers in and added new run off areas, putting a nostalgic premium on short game strategy and finesse shots.

And finally, he flattened and reseeded the greens with Emerald Bermuda grass to increase the number of pinnable locations to places they’ve never been before.

Memorable Moments In Tournament History

In 1966 Lionel Hebert wins the inaugural tournament defeating Jack Nicklaus by two shots.

In 1971 Arnold Palmer wins the event and eight years later becomes the tournament host.

In 1985 Fuzzy Zoeller beats Tom Watson by two shots just six months after back surgery.

In 1992 Fred Couples becomes the World No. 1 ranked player with a nine-shot win over Gene Sauers.

In 2000 Tiger Woods wins at Bay Hill for the first time beating Davis Love III by four shots.

In 2009 Woods wins for the second consecutive year and sixth time overall at Bay Hill defeating Sean O’Hair by one shot with a birdie on the 72d hole.

A Tribute To The King

Palmer biographer Jim Dodson once wrote, “Golf was a country club game.  [Then] along comes this muscular tilting Pennsylvanian with a corkscrew swing and a handsome grimace, and suddenly he was an irresistible figure who would [change the game].

Yes before there was a Tiger Woods, a man simply known as “The King” made golf cool.

When Arnold Daniel Palmer was born the son of a country club groundskeeper in Latrobe, PA., no one could have imagined his name would become synonymous with superstardom or that he’d become so beloved.

Yet like the Hogans, the Sneads, and the Joneses, Palmer would transcend the game.  And along the way, win the hearts and minds of millions of people (Arnie’s Army).

Palmer today has the same charisma, grace, and gentlemanly demeanor that he had when he first burst onto the scene in 1962.  Today he’s as big an icon as anyone in the history of the sport, and also just as humble.

With his own swashbuckling, daring style of cool, Palmer won 62 PGA Tour events and seven majors between 1955 and 1976, and he taught us to “go big” without getting “a big head”.

He was golf’s first player to earn $100,000 in a single season, but he never acted pretentous.  He remained grounded, down to earth in his blue collar Latrobe upbringing, always in touch with the common man.

Ask any player in the field this week about Arnold Palmer, and their admiration and genuine appreciation of what he means to the game of golf is as clear as day.

“He’s got to be my favorite golfer,” beamed six time PGA Tour winner Matt Kuchar when asked about “The King.”

And 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell readily acknowledged, “Arnold Palmer is probably one of the guys most responsible for the modern game as we known it.”

Palmer popularized and commercialized golf not just in the U.S, but around the world.  Between 1960 and 1970, the number of people who played the game doubled from five million to 10 million players.

Course development grew from 6,000 new courses to over 10,000 (with a new golf course being built on average every day for 10 consecutive years).

And today, this sport once thought reserved only for the country club elite, is now one of the fastest growing sports in the world, open to anyone, and enjoyed by everyone.

Palmer’s swagger was daring and fearless on the course; he was the James Dean of golf.  But off the course he was the boy next door, and everyone’s hero.  Even President Eisenhower, a noted golf nut, was enamored with Palmer and took to him as a son.

Palmer is a throwback to the days when a man’s word was his bond.  When honor, integrity, and personal responsibility weren’t just empty catch phrases used indifferently in all walks of life, but rather, viscerally embodied in a person’s character and aspirations.

So thank you Mr. Palmer for your tournament at Bay Hill.  Thank you for all you’ve done for this great game of golf that so many of us love.

And most importantly, thank you for being a person that every generation can look up to as we all strive to become better people, better neighbors, and better family members.

The Usual Suspects

Tiger Woods (8/1).  Tiger’s won this event six times (there are only four multiple winners of the Arnold Palmer Invitational), and no one in the field knows Bay Hill better than Woods.

So far this season Tiger leads the PGA Tour in total driving and all-around ranking, and he’s second in scoring average behind McIlroy.

Two days at the Tavistock Cup have put to rest questions about his strained left Achilles (David Feherty’s tongue in cheek teasing aside).

Tiger is the favorite to win in his final tune-up before the Masters.

Phil Mickelson (12/1).  Phil also has his eye on Augusta, but Bay Hill suits his eye, and his game, to a tee.  It’s long out of the box, and requires skilled finesse shots to hold the greens.  Sounds right up “Lefty’s” alley.

Mickelson has played well all season, winning the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and nearly becoming the first player to win multiple times this season (finishing second in a playoff at the Northern Trust Open).  And oh yeah, Tiger’s in the field, which always makes everything right for “Lefty.”

If Mickelson is on page one of the leaderboard on Sunday, don’t bet against him winning for the 41st time in his career (and second time at Bay Hill).

Not Quite Flying Under The Radar

Webb Simpson (20/1).  Simpson finished in 10th place last week at the Transitions Championship, and early on this season had three top-10 finishes.

He’s fourth on Tour in scoring average, 10th in GIR, and 12th in bogey avoidance.

However he’s missed the cut at Bay Hill the past two years.

Hunter Mahan (25/1).  Mahan has been steady if not spectacular in finishing inside the top-25 in every event played this year.

He’s second in total driving, and 17th in all-around ranking.

His victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this year showed he’s learning how to win and deal with the pressure of final day contention.

And three top-25’s in his last four starts at Bay Hill suggests he likes the course.

Howl At The Moon

Bubba Watson (30/1).  Bubba leads the tour in driving distance and GIR.

Most of the redesigned fairway bunkers won’t come into play for Watson because he’s so long off the tee.

With two top-10 finishes and a second place finish (WGC-Cadillac) this year, Bubba has played well enough to win, but he’s beginning to develop a reputation for self-destructing when he’s in contention with a title on the line.

Ernie Els (40/1).  It was agonizing to watch Els throw away the lead at Copperhead last week.  He was a bogey-bogey finish on Sunday away from moving inside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings and earning an invitation to the Masters.

Els has said many times (and very candidly) that reaching the pinnacle of golf: the career grand slam, is very important to him.  And to that aim he already has two U.S. Opens and one British Open under his belt.

A win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational would put Els on the first tee at Tea Olive once more, and give him his 19th shot at a green jacket.

Els is a two time champion here at Bay Hill, winning in 1998, and 2010.  And he played as well as anyone for 70 holes last week, finishing T-1 in greens-in-regulation.  But the collapse at Transitions was a gut-wrenching one, and took the wind out of Els sails.

The Roof Is On Fire

Sang-Moon Bae (60/1).  Only eight starts into his rookie season on the PGA Tour, don’t be surprised to see Bae use the Arnold Palmer Invitational as his coming out party.

He’s made every cut, has two top-5 finishes, and his T-2 finish at Transitions last week was extremely impressive.  I’m going with the hot hand, and betting on Bae to pick up his first PGA Tour win this week.

Perfect Pairings

Hunter Mahan, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods

Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson

Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker, Jim Furyk

Pat Perez, Tommy Gainey, Ryo Ishikawa

George McNeil, Mark Wilson, K.J. Choi

D.J. Trahan, Jeff Maggert, Jeff Overton

Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Sang-Moon Bae

Andrew Magee, Josh Teeter, Michael Thompson

Fredrik Jacobson, Henrik Stenson, J.B. Holmes

From One King To Another

Story has it, Palmer was once invited to play an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi King.  After the match, the king was so impressed, he proposed to give Palmer a special gift to commemorate his visit.

It really isn’t necessary, Your Highness,” Palmer said.  “I’m honored just to have been invited.

To which the king replied, “I would be deeply upset if you would not allow me to give you a gift.

Palmer thought carefully for a moment, and not wanting to dishonor the king, answered, “All right, why don’t you give me a golf club?

The king was pleased with Palmer’s request, and promised Palmer would have it on his return to the U.S.

On his flight back Palmer began to wonder what kind of club the king would give him.  Maybe a solid gold putter?  Or a diamond-adorned iron set?  Maybe even a rare jewel-encrusted driver with his name engraved on it?

Whatever it would be, Palmer knew he’d display it at home along with his other cherished trophies.  After all, if would be a gift from a king.

Well a few weeks later, Palmer received a letter in the mail; it was from the king.  Not knowing what to think, he opened it.  And what he found inside was shocking.

The king gave Palmer a “deed” to a “golf club”, complete with multiple facilities, clubhouse, and thousands of acres of land!

Palmer won’t be giving the winner of the 2012 Arnold Palmer Invitational title to the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, but the champion will get a handshake from Palmer.  And that alone is worth a King’s ransom.

Notes

Television Coverage

Thursday and Friday: Golf Channel 3-6 pm EST

Saturday and Sunday: NBC 2:30-6 pm EST

Radio Coverage

Thursday through Sunday: SiriusXM Satellite Radio 12-6 pm EST

Odds

Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

Follow Pete on twitter @TheGreekGrind

About

Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions.

Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off.

When Pete's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas


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