ORLANDO, Fla. – At the first Arnold Palmer Invitational held since the death of its namesake legend, a simple ceremonial opening tee shot would not be enough.
So, for Wednesday’s festivities, golf pros lined the practice range at Bay Hill to give Arnie a 50-tee-shot salute. And not a single of those machine-tooled, smooth-as-crushed-velvet swings came close to being as watchable as the great lashing Palmer used to give to the golf ball.
It was somehow emblematic of the fact that these heirs to Palmer’s kingdom never can possess the raw charisma of the man himself.
This was, after all, a champion, who like Jack Nicklaus, made it a habit to send out hand-written congratulatory notes to modern players when they won something noteworthy. Rory McIlroy was speaking Wednesday about how he has some of those framed on his wall, like master works of art. What does the next generation have to look forward to – a pithy text message? How often will any get to say, “Yeah, that’s a Tweet worth framing?”
Palmer’s unorthodox swing – seeming more suitable for clearing brush than splitting fairways – is now forever preserved on the grounds of his course just steps away from the range. A 13-foot bronze trophy of a young Palmer in follow-through – forearms roped in muscle, eyes fixed on the imagined ball’s championship trajectory – was unveiled last week.
The theme to the ceremonies Wednesday was “A life well played,” a fitting summary.
And the tributes to Palmer no doubt will carry through to Thursday at the Masters, where Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will hit their ceremonial tee balls to begin play without their friend in attendance. A little more than five months after sharing the Masters tee box with the two other icons, unable to hit a ball but showing up nonetheless, Palmer died. The coolest man in golf, the fellow who made the game popular before Tiger Woods drew his first breath, was gone.
A challenge facing the game – and more specifically this tournament – will be maintaining the Palmer legacy without the benefit of the man’s presence. Byron Nelson’s tournament suffered following his death – and a certain concern over the future of Palmer’s event is inevitable.
Even in the first eponymous event since his death, there was a great deal of sensitivity about those top players who chose not to show. Most prominent were world’s No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.
Tweeted former Tour Championship winner Billy Horschel, speaking for the critics: “Disappointing. Totally understand schedule issues. But 1st year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn’t be in position we are today.”
But tournament officials went miles out of their way to give the no-shows a pass.
Said Graeme McDowell, an Orlando-based player who recently assumed a role as tournament host, “Obviously, there are guys who are not here, and they may be unfairly criticized for that. I really have been a believer in that guys will remember and respect Arnold in their own way, and being here or not being here this week really to me has no bearing on that.”
In the attempt to keep in touch with Palmer’s memory, a few new wrinkles were added to his tournament this year.
Players have been invited to his Bay Hill office to sign memorabilia at his desk. None will write their names as carefully and legibly as he.
His golf bag stands sentry on the practice tee this week, beneath the big shade umbrella where in later years he used to hit balls just for the sheer enjoyment. Made you long for the days Palmer’s clubs were tools, not relics.
Umbrellas will be common throughout the field despite the fact that no rain is in the forecast the rest of this week. Many will be sporting Palmer’s multi-colored umbrella logo on their caps and bags. The fashion statement is bound to look a little anachronistic on them.
This year, rather than a plaid coat – and, really, who needs one of those – the Arnie champion will get a red alpaca sweater worn by the King himself. It won’t look as good on whoever receives it as it did on the original owner.
They significantly raised the tournament purse this year – from $6.3 million to $8.7 million – and heaven knows, Arnie never would have turned down a few extra dollars.
But none of it will exactly be the same without Palmer there on No. 18 late Sunday afternoon, greeting the champion as he walks up the hill that sets off the finishing green.
“To be able to win last year and have that celebratory drink with him and being the last person to be able to do that is a special honor,” Jason Day, last year’s API champion said.
Vodka was the King’s drink of choice. And enjoying just one with him could be intoxicating. “I was going on the Golf Channel, and I felt absolutely hammered,” Day joked, thinking back on the day he tipped one with Palmer.
Memories are going to be in no short supply here this week. But they can’t come close to replacing their author.
Just as no tribute to Palmer at Augusta National possibly could stand in for one smile and a single thumbs-up from the four-time Masters champion.