With the Masters barely three weeks away the Arnold Palmer Invitational gives the top players a chance to benchmark the state of their games ahead of the Green Jacket showpiece. The 2017 tournament from Bay Hill is sure to be an emotional one as it will be the first time that the great Arnold Palmer will not be present after passing away in September 2016. That said the spirit of one of the greatest players in the history of the sport will be well and truly alive at the private resort owned by the seven time Major Champion. Golf365 give their verdict ahead of the event exclusively for Betsafe.
The golf community is set for an emotional week in Florida as the PGA Tour returns to Bay Hill for the first time since the tournament host passed away last September.
It’s impossible to overstate the extent to which Palmer has shaped the sport – he had a hand in just about everything we know about modern golf.
He spread the game across the globe, reinvigorated the Open Championship, embraced the corporate world and sponsorship, was at the forefront of the rise of management, more or less invented off-course earnings, and instinctively understood television’s potential.
Above all that, however, his personality and love of life was infectious for fans and fellow players – he was loved in the way that very few golfers ever have been. This week will a be a celebration of everything he achieved.
But it’s not all plain-sailing because some players have stayed away, creating golf’s own version of the “He’s not wearing a poppy” outrage.
Billy Horschel, for example, wrote on Twitter: “Disappointing. Totally understand scheduling issues. But first year with AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn’t be in position we are today.”
Once the golf starts the controversy will hopefully quieten down, allowing the good vibes to flow peacefully. Arnie’s Army will be out in force so make yourself an Arnold Palmer (ice tea and lemonade) and enjoy the memories.
For much of the 21st century this tournament was all about Tiger. He won four on the bounce from 2000 to 2003, then went back-to-back in both 2008-9 and 2012-13.
Nor is he the only player to enjoy winning runs – Loren Roberts claimed two from two in 1994-5 and little-known Matt Every confounded the form books to do so in 2014-15. Ernie Els is also a double winner, albeit with a 12-year gap (1998 and 2010).
Twelve months ago Jason Day, who had led the field from midway through his first round, stood on the 71st tee trailing Kevin Chappell by one. But as the latter made bogey on the final hole, Day drained a 12-foot birdie putt on the difficult par-3 17th to complete a flip-flop which he confirmed with a grinding par down the last.
“Even though the front side wasn’t good for me,” he explained afterwards. “I just thought, don’t panic. Be patient with yourself and when you get that opening, like I did on 17, make sure you take it.”
About Bay Hill Club & Lodge
Originally designed by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee (La Costa, Cog Hill, Greenbrier, Doral) it features a lot of water and has been extensively altered by Palmer down the years. There was a time when it played very tough. Woods won with 5-under in 2008, whilst Vijay Singh (2007) and Martin Laird (2011) both had winning scores of 8-under. Since 2012 the winner has got it to at least 13-under, with Every (2015) 19-under and Day 17-under last year.
The closing hole is a beast of a par-4 measuring 458 yards, calling for an approach over water to a shallow kidney-shaped green. In 1990 Greg Norman was defeated by Robert Gamez, whose seven-iron approach to the last found the bottom of the hole for an eagle two, pinching a one-shot victory – classic Greg Norman, who suffered at the hands of outrageous flukes by his opponents more than almost any golfer in history.
It’s a tough task looking for a consistent route to success. Day was supreme on the greens (needing just 100 putts all week), but average hitting them. Every hit a lot of greens in both his victories. Woods’ most recent wins saw him succeed in spite of a cold putter one year, then he was sensational on the greens 12 months later. Martin Laird did everything well, but nothing stood out.
If all these winners – and Ernie Els before them too – have anything in common it is season-long solid scrambling stats, often from 30 yards out.
One little curiosity to note is that European Tour regulars have had a tendency to make the most of their first invitation to the tournament in recent years. Graeme McDowell was second in 2005 and Edoardo Molinari repeated the trick in 2010. In 2013 Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Thorbjorn Olesen both made the top 10. Meanwhile, Kiradech Aphibarnrat has kicked off his career record at the course by recording T6th in both of the last two years.
This year’s Euro Tour debutant ranks include Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren, Anirban Lahiri and Jeung-hun Wang.
Arnold Palmer Invitational Favourites
Opened last year’s tournament with rounds of 66-65 to open up a two-shot advantage on the field and two rounds of 70 saw him close it out. If it was unsurprising that he won given his form (he was racking up seven wins in 17 starts at the time), it was a little unexpected given that he’d failed to make the top 15 in four previous visits. T12 in Hawaii and T5 at Pebble Beach but outside the top 60 in his other two starts in 2017.
His two visits might be limited evidence, but he has struggled to find fairways from the tee box, ranking 48th and 66th, which helps explain the lack of a top-10 finish. He has, however, proved he can go low on the course (a 66 in 2015, a last-round 65 12 months ago), but he has also struggled some days: last year he carded two rounds of 75. Both his T2 in South Africa and T7 in Mexico showed promise; he just needs to rediscover the killer touch.
Victory in the WM Phoenix Open made it five wins in nine starts for the Japanese performer. It’s tough to maintain those standards so it might be wise to not read too much into the missed cut in the Genesis Open and never-in-contention T25 in the Mexico Championship. He finished T21 on his tournament debut in 2015 and improved on that to peg T6 12 months ago. Ranked first for All-round game on that latter effort so has to be viewed as a genuine threat.
The Swede’s first four visits to Bay Hill saw him fail to crack the top 10; his last four trips have seen him never finish outside it. His ball striking has been outstanding in that period (never outside the top five for Greens in Regulation), the question is if he can drop enough putts? Seventh last week in the Valspar Championship, his sixth worldwide top-10 finish in a row, but still seeking the first win since he triumphed in the Open Championship.
The American went out of his way to attend Palmer’s memorial following the Ryder Cup victory in October so is likely to be highly motivated this week. He’ll be making his sixth appearance in the event so has plenty of course experience and was T3 back in 2013. More pertinently his form is rock solid, following T4 in Phoenix, T16 in Mexico and, in between, an exceptional victory in the Honda Classic.
It has been a solid start to 2017 for the Englishman as he has pegged T2 in the Sony Open and T4 at both the Farmers Insurance and Genesis Opens. In between he was T39 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am and T38 in the Mexico Championship. Nor does he lack for form at Arnie’s place. He was T3 in 2011, T2 in 2013 and T9 this time last year. Another who might rise to the emotional occasion.
About Matt Cooper
Matt Cooper is a contributor for Golf365, which has all the latest from tour events, plus news, features and course reviews.