ORLANDO – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – It’s nearly impossible to talk golf and not think about Arnold Palmer, who might not have been the greatest in the game’s history but surely was the most magnanimous and beloved.
Palmer died in September at age 87, but the event in which he’s most associated with and bears his name — the Arnold Palmer Invitational — carries on this week at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla.
A field of 120 players will begin play on Thursday for a total purse of $8.7 million, with $1.556 million going to the winner.
Australia’s Jason Day, the world’s second-ranked player, headlines this year’s event along with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy (No. 3), Hideki Matsuyama of Japan (No. 4) and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson (No. 5).
The field includes 29 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Using this metric, the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational is the strongest field to date in the 2016-17 season outside the limited field World Golf Championships.
The competition will also feature 37 of the top 50 players in the current FedExCup standings, led by Matsuyama (No. 2), Adam Hadwin (No. 4), Pat Perez (No. 6), Rickie Fowler (No. 10), Mackenzie Hughes (No. 11), Charles Howell III (No. 12), Hudson Swafford (No. 13), Rod Pampling of Australia (No. 14), Justin Rose of England (No. 15), Cody Gribble (No. 16), Webb Simpson (No. 18) and Keegan Bradley (No. 20).
There will be reminders of Palmer’s legacy everywhere golfers and patrons go this week. Just the thought of playing the tournament without The King ready to shake the winner’s hand on the final green is almost unfathomable.
“That he’s not here is going to be a big thing,” said Stenson, the reigning British Open champion. “But we are going to pay tribute to his life and everything that he’s done. So, I hope that could make up for part of him not being here.”
Day edged Kevin Chappell by one stroke to win the 2016 Arnold Palmer Invitational. In the process, he became the fourth wire-to-wire winner (no ties) of the event, joining Mike Nicolette (1983), Paul Azinger (1988) and Fred Couples (1992).
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, a transplant to Central Florida in his years after college at Alabama-Birmingham and since winning the US Open in 2010, is part of this tournament’s host committee.
“Obviously this is a very special week — the first Invitational without the man,” McDowell said. “It’s been cool. I guess being a local boy here in Orlando these days, this is a tournament which has become very special to me. It’s probably my first big finish in the United States back in 2005, I think second here, and that kind of started my love affair with the city of Orlando a little bit.”
This edition of this tournament will mark the 39th year at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge. Prior to arriving at Bay Hill, the tournament (then known as the Florida Citrus Open) was held at Rio Pinar CC from 1966-78. The name of the event was changed in 2007 from the Bay Hill Invitational to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in honor of its long-time host.
The tournament has had five just international winners: Ernie Els of South Africa in 1998 and 2010; Pampling in 2006, Vijay Singh of Fiji in 2007, Scotland’s Martin Laird in 2011; and Day last year.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is the 18th event in the PGA Tour’s wraparound schedule that bridges two years with 47 official events in a span of 43 weeks, culminating with the 2017 Tour Championship.
For the third consecutive season, the winner of this week will receive a three-year exemption, instead of the two-year exemption awarded at other PGA Tour events.
This is the sixth week that Thomas has led the FedExCup standings, having taken over the lead after a tie for fifth at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. Matsuyama, currently No. 2 and trailing Thomas by just one point, has led the FedExCup standings for a total of 10 weeks this season, while Brendan Steele led after week one after capturing the Safeway Open