Arnold Palmer Invitational features top-flight field

By Edgar Thompson
Published on
Arnold Palmer Invitational features top-flight field

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orlando will take center stage on the PGA Tour this week when the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard will take place at Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

Scheduled for Thursday-Sunday, the tournament will feature six of the eight top players in the Official World Golf Rankings and is likely to come down to the wire. Nine of the past 10 APIs have been decided by two strokes or fewer.

Check out nine key things to know during this week:

The King's golden touch

Arnold Palmer's fingerprints have been all over the annual stop at Bay Hill Club and Lodge since it moved to his home course in 1979.

Palmer makes a point to know a little something about each of his 120 guests, leading to easy conversations on the range. He often invites top players with a phone call and usually receives one if the Bay Hill stop does not fit their schedules. And, of course, Palmer greets the winner with a warm handshake behind the 18th green on Sunday.

Palmer's hands-on approach has made his invitational one of the premier tournaments on Tour.

"From the time he put his name on it, it became a very different event," said NBC analyst Gary Koch, the only man to win the event at both Rio Pinar and Bay Hill. "It was always a nice event when it was the old Florida Citrus Open. The reason it draws the great fields it does [is] because of Arnold Palmer. The players want to come to be around him, but also to show their reverence."

At age 86, the King is slowing down and will not be quite as visible this week, his grandson Sam Saunders recently told ESPN.

Palmer still is eager to get out to mingle and watch some golf.

"I don't think his liveliness is quite there like it has been," Saunders said. "The one thing that will never go away is his toughness. He's not just going to lay down and not do anything. He'll still be out there trying to push it.

"All the guys coming to the tournament and seeing the familiar faces will definitely get his spirits up."

Great Scott

The star-studded field at Bay Hill features the hottest player in the game, Adam Scott. The 35-year-old Aussie won the Honda Classic and at Doral, giving him a chance to become the first player to win three consecutive starts since Tiger Woods won five straight in 2007-08.

If Scott finds himself in contention, he will have to overcome a bit of scar tissue. Scott led the first three rounds in 2014, but shot a final-round 76 to finish two shots behind winner Matt Every.

Given his current form, Scott has to top the list of favorites this week. Meanwhile, it is just a matter of time before world No. 2 Rory McIlroy ends a winless drought on Tour dating to last May at Quail Hollow. Highlighted by a second-round 66, McIlroy tied for 11th in 2015 during his first start at Bay Hill.

World No. 7 and Orlando resident Henrik Stenson played in the final pairing in 2015, but he lost his chance to win after consecutive three-putts on the 15th and 16th holes. World No. 8 Justin Rose finished runner-up in 2013 to Tiger Woods.

As for sleepers, big-hitting Tony Finau could find his form from the second half of 2015 at expansive Bay Hill; Danny Lee shot a second-round 64 last year and was in the mix at Phoenix last month; and 22-year-old Daniel Berger made his name at the API last year with the event's first-ever albatross.

Bless you, Bubba

Bubba Watson's last trip to the Arnie in 2014 ended when a stuffy nose and itchy eyes led to a head-scratching 83, prompting him to withdraw after the first round due to allergies.

Bubba is back for another crack at Bay Hill, a month removed from a win at Riviera and two weeks since a runner-up finish at Doral. Watson is among the tournament headliners and one of the best shows in the game -- a player capable of 350-yard drives and shot-shaping wizardry.

If his allergies behave, he should stick around for the weekend. Watson has not missed the cut since 2010.

Watson, a nine-time winner on Tour, is still looking to get in the mix on Sunday at Bay Hill. His best finish is a tie for fourth in 2012, when Tiger Woods won by five shots.

Grass is greener

Bay Hill Club got a face-lift since and at 50 years old, the course is looking -- and playing -- better than ever.

Last summer, the club's grounds crew re-grassed the course's 27 holes with TifEagle bermudagrass on the greens and Celebration bermudagrass on the fairways and tee boxes. Each strain of grass is sturdier to ensure improved playability, especially during Florida's warm, dry late winter.

"We think the greens are going to be very good," Palmer said. "And fast."

Orlando resident Graeme McDowell raved about the putting surfaces, and the general transformation of Bay Hill, after he played a round there on New Year's Eve.

"The greens are running really pure and in fantastic condition," McDowell said. "The course continues to evolve beautifully with the new run-off areas we have seen the last few years, bringing a lot of character to Bay Hill. I imagine it's only going to get better and be great for the tournament week."

Arnie's good works

Golf provided Palmer a chance for fame and fortune. Palmer made sure to share his blessings with others.

The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies are among the by-products of Palmer's philanthropy. The children's hospital has strong ties to the game.

Orlando PGA Professional Joey Hidock has directed the "Putting on Smiles" program since 2006. Since then, Hidock and more than 100 PGA professionals from the area have offered putting lessons to sick and terminally ill children and stages contests to help lift their spirits.

On Tuesday, Arnie's Army Foundation will stage its March Against Children's Cancer. The mile walk at Bay Hill will feature cancer survivors and current patients to raise money for the hospital and awareness about the disease.

The API has generated tens of millions of dollars for the two hospitals, said Geo Morales, manager of media relations there.

"The hospital got its start because of Mr. Palmer's fame in the golf world," Morales said. "The most-enduring reminder of his influence on the hospital is we still have this strong connection to golf, even though he is known much more now as a philanthropist and a brand as he is as a golfer."

Fantastic finishes

Tiger Woods is synonymous with 72nd hole drama at Bay Hill, sinking lengthy birdie putts to win three of his eight Arnold Palmer Invitational titles -- in 2001, 2008 and 2009.

Yet, plenty of golfers have come through in the clutch to win Palmer's event. Defending champion Matt Every sank a 17-foot birdie on the 18th hole last year for back-to-back API wins. And no winning shot at Bay Hill matches Robert Gamez's 5-iron for eagle on the final hole to beat Greg Norman in 1990.

Sometimes, 72 holes is not enough to decide a winner. Sudden-death playoffs decided six of the first 20 events at Bay Hill, including two wins by Hall of Famer Tom Kite.

Bay Hill's three-hole closing stretch is set up to ensure exciting finishes. NBC's Gary Koch, who won a playoff 1984, likened the finish to TPC Sawgrass, home to The Players Championship.

A risk-reward par-5 16th hole is followed by a treacherous par-3 and challenging par-4, especially with Bay Hill's Sunday pin placement in the back right over the water. Koch said No. 17 at Bay Hill -- a 221-yard shot from an elevated tee to a shallow green surrounded by water on three sides and fronted by a bunker -- actually is more challenging than TPC's famed island green.

"I really like the finish," he said. "The potential for lead changes or excitement for the viewers, it's pretty darn good."

Bay Hill's backbone

No one this week will have made more starts at the API than Ken Hoffman. Hoffman, 66, is in his 35th year as a volunteer, beginning in 1982 when Tom Kite chipped in for birdie to beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff.

Over the years, Hoffman has served on various committees. Now vice chairman of the executive board, Hoffman oversees parking, media, VIPs and caddies, and coordinates the shuttle services.

Hoffman is far from a one-man show. More than 1,400 volunteers spend countless hours doing everything, including ticket taking, standard-bearing and crowd control. Another 2,000 work in concessions on behalf of the volunteers' community service groups.

"The tournament has grown so much, and I'm proud to be a part of it," Hoffman said. "Our focus is to make it a great experience for our guests."

Given it's an election year, the PGA Tour Volunteer Challenge presented by Myrbetriq offers one volunteer a chance to win a $10,000 check to present to the Arnold Palmer Medical Center or another local charity. Friends and family of a volunteer can vote at

Game changer

Bay Hill's par-5 sixth hole is not the most difficult hole on the course, but it might be the most notorious on the 18-hole layout. John Daly's infamous 18 there in 1998 included six balls in the lake that hugs the left side of the hole from tee to green. (Out of bounds and bunkers guard the right side of the fairway).

Paired in the final round with Woods three years later, co-leader Sergio Garcia hit a 2-iron in the drink to trigger a triple-bogey and fall four shots behind Woods, who made birdie. Garcia, then 21, has been adding scar tissue ever since.

Train wrecks and momentum swings are a given at No. 6. Last year, Daniel Berger jarred a 7-iron from 237 yards for the first albatross -- a score of 2 on a par 5 -- in API history. In 2013, the hole was the hardest among the four par-5s. But Woods played it in 5-under, highlighted by an eagle 3 in the second round, en route to a two-shot win.

Twenty-six balls ended up in the lake in 2015, including 15 off the tee. For the week, there were seven eagles and 12 double bogeys or higher.

"A lot of things happen; you can make anything from eagle to double bogey," said John Lillvis, a rules official for the PGA Tour. "It's a game-changer."

This and that

--The Ryder Cup is not until October, but U.S captain Davis Love III and European counterpart Darren Clarke are busy weighing their teams. Each will tee it up this week with their focus less on winning than seeing Cup candidates playing a tough layout.

Love limped around Bay Hill last March and had right foot surgery April 1. But the 51-year-old turned back the clock in August for his first win since 2008, capturing the Wyndham Championship to become the third-oldest winner ever on Tour. The 47-year-old Clarke's emotional 2011 win at the Open Championship was his last victory.

This article was written by Edgar Thompson from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.