Arnold Palmer is gone, but his legacy reverberates at Bay Hill
Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy and others know the legacy of The King is just starting to unfold
ORLANDO, Fla. -- For some, the gravity of a life well lived is not fully understood until long after that person passes on from this life to the next. Arnold Palmer lived one hell of a life.
Some wondered if the first Arnold Palmer Invitational without its namesake would be a somber, downtrodden affair.
I can assure you, it is not.
Sure, there have been moments of sadness. Palmer’s old bag was set on the driving range. A golf cart will sit behind the 16th tee box where Palmer used to sit and lord over this event. There was a driving range salute on Wednesday. These are reminders that there was a funeral at the end of 2016.
But in so many ways this week, the mood has been celebratory. It has been a revelation in just how influential Palmer was over this game we all are somehow involved in. From players to trainers to broadcasters to caddies to writers, everyone owes Palmer a cut of whatever they’re currently making.
“I think my grandfather’s legacy speaks for itself,” said his grandson, Sam Saunders. “He made a mark on this game that will probably never be equalled. We’re all here in a way because of him, and it’s such a special week and the players are all here to pay tribute to that. I’ve been so personally touched by everyone that has come here.”
That group of players in attendance includes world No. 1 Jason Day, the defending champion of this event.
“Obviously, it was sad to see him pass last year,” said Day. “I think what they did today with the [driving range] ceremony ... I think they did a tremendous job out there remembering and not only as a golfer and what he did on the golf course, but he what he did to many individuals that he’s touched around not only this area but around the United States and around the world as well.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit of an emotional week for most guys out there because we’re just so used to seeing Mr. Palmer drive around and see him in the clubhouse and just sad to see him pass, but hopefully we can get a good week going and the weather is tremendous this week and we’re looking forward to another spectacular week here in Orlando.”
Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said his dinner with Palmer, after his first round at the tournament in 2005, is one he will tell his grandchildren about. McIlroy also noted that he wanted to play here the last few years because he wanted to honor Palmer not only after death but while he was still living.
“It really is to celebrate a man who did a tremendous amount for golf, but he also did a tremendous amount for the community here in Orlando,” said McIlroy. “Really just to celebrate all that he was as a person and as a golfer. I think that’s the most important thing this week. Bay Hill’s a special place. It means a lot to us.
“I think Arnold meant an awful lot to every one of us. Anyone that is involved with the game of golf in any capacity, especially the ones that get paid to play it or get paid to write about it or get paid to whatever, I mean, he was a massive part of that. And I think we all owe him a massive debt of gratitude for what he did for the game.”
It might not have been an accident, though. People gather under umbrellas. They huddle together. They convene and chat. The bigger the umbrella, the more people can enter in. And the umbrella of golf in 2017 includes exponentially more people than it probably should.
Golf purses would not be $8 million -- this week’s sum -- if not for Palmer. The Masters would still be terrific, but it might not be as globally popular if Palmer had not set Tiger Woods up with an alley-oop which Woods slammed home in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The PGA Tour might not be on our TVs and in our homes and on our phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It might not be as ubiquitous as it is these days. Who can know for sure? All we have is reality, and that reality is that modern golf was built on the back of Palmer.
His name and his aura will waft forward into future generations. Kids who are not even born yet will become rich because of a man they never knew. This is important. Palmer is the one of the myriad fulcrums upon which this whole traveling circus spins. He took a school play and made it a broadway spectacle.
Today’s golfers understand that. The ones who get it, get it. It has been a joy to watch unfold this week at Palmer’s tournament with his name splayed all over the grounds. There is no physical tribute or lyrical monologue that could be made that would do justice to just how important Palmer was to the sport.
Give credit where it’s due, though. Not everyone showed up this week, and that is OK because the golfers here speak for those who are not. A sporting hero was -- and is -- remembered at Bay Hill. A tournament will be played. Tour life will go on. But this is only the beginning of the future. Palmer’s always-sly, usually-grinning, weathered face will be on golf’s Mt. Rushmore for a long time, maybe forever.
“Legends never die,” said Fowler. “He’s always going to be here; this tournament’s going to go on. He was a special man, and I’m happy I was able to call him a friend.”
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