ORLANDO, Fla. – Sam Saunders started the tribute with a drive from the spot on the Bay Hill range where his grandfather, Arnold Palmer, used to practice.
Sixty more players followed, one after the other, ending with defending champion Jason Day.
As soon as one player hit his tee shot, the player next to him began his swing. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! From right to left down the range, the balls soared against a blue sky. The sequence was golf’s version of a 21-gun salute.
The opening ceremony was a new tradition at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the first without its tournament host and golf’s most beloved figure.
“Let’s make him proud and hit this one hard,” Saunders said.
Wednesday was filled with more stories and more memories of Palmer, who died Sept. 25 in Pittsburgh. It figures to continue through the opening round Thursday, right to the end on Sunday.
Palmer used to greet the winner on the 18th green. Instead of getting a blue blazer, the winner now will get a red cardigan, like the King once wore.
“I think my grandfather’s legacy speaks for itself. He made a mark on this game that will probably never be equaled,” Saunders said. “I’ve been so personally touched by everyone that has come here. … They’re playing because they know that my grandfather was able to give them a career, give them an opportunity to play golf for a living, and to give the media a chance to cover what we do.”
Saunders, 29, has only conditional status on the PGA Tour this year. The PGA Tour still put him in the same group as Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker. Players who get a sponsor exemption don’t typically play with the top names, but this is a different week, a special occasion.
Day won last year with a bunker save on the final hole, the first big step in his rise to No. 1 in the world. He also got the last handshake from the King as the Arnold Palmer Invitational winner.
During his pro-am Wednesday, a woman asking for an autograph wore a shirt showing a photo that Day recognized immediately: Palmer in a golf cart clasping hands with Day, with his wife and two young children.
“I get to have that memory of actually standing with him, talking to him and being his champion. Those memories you don’t forget,” Day said.
Those memories include having a drink with the King, another Bay Hill tradition.
“I felt like I was drinking a whole bottle of Ketel One, because that’s obviously his favorite thing,” Day said. “And I was on Golf Channel and I felt absolutely hammered. I had a drink with him and I’m going up there and I don’t know what I’m saying on Golf Channel. But it was a special moment at his place, and just winning this tournament, it is such a big event for us.”
The idea is to keep it a big event.
The total prize money was raised from $6.3 million to $8.7 million, as it will be for the Memorial that Jack Nicklaus runs. Both offer a three-year exemption.
The corporate support already is there. MasterCard has renewed its deal as a presenting sponsor, while Hertz has renewed as an associate sponsor and Orlando Health, the umbrella for Palmer’s hospitals, has signed on as an associate sponsor.
The field is the second strongest in the last 10 years for Bay Hill, featuring four of the top five and 14 of the top 25 in the world. It includes Rory McIlroy, who did not play the Arnold Palmer Invitational until 2015, and only then after Palmer jokingly said he was going to break his arm.
McIlroy and Palmer had dinner that week – the King insisted McIlroy have Bay Hill’s famous banana split – and the connection was immediate. McIlroy’s one regret is not getting a chance to see Palmer on the 18th green. He hasn’t played well enough to finish that late on Sunday.
“It’s going to be different,” McIlroy said. “But I don’t think that should be a sad thing, necessarily. You look at the grandstands on 18 and you see all the colorful umbrellas and there’s so much around here that reminds us of him, so, it will be different. … It should be a celebration of what has been a great life. “We will move on,” he said. “But we’ll move on with him very much in our memories and it will still be a great tournament.”
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