Palmer owned Bay Hill, where the event is held, from 1974 and his standing in the game ensured it has always been one of the highlights of the PGA Tour season. Just to play in Palmer’s event was a memory to cherish. To win it provided Martin Laird – the only British player to have done so, incidentally – with the undoubted highlight of his career so far as a 2011 success secured a first meeting with the sport’s “King”.
“I literally had never seen him in the locker-room or seen him on the range,” recalled Laird. “I’d never talked to him. Then I won his tournament. That’s what makes winning [at Bay Hill] so special.” Speaking in an interview with pgatour.com before the 2015 event, the Scot added: “You came off and you’ve got a legend of the game standing there shaking your hand and congratulating you. That’s obviously something I’ll never forget. It’s always special to meet him and talk to him, but when it’s in that situation, it’s even better. For me, that’s my most special win – for that reason.”
Laird is back at Bay Hill this week but some of the game’s leading lights are giving the event a miss. World No 1 Dustin Johnson heads a list of absentees that also includes Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson. Five of the world’s top 10, in fact, have decided not to play this week, raising a few eyebrows in the process due to it being the first since Palmer’s passing.
Are they being disrespectful? Perhaps so and it would have been nice if Johnson, Spieth, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia – Mickelson, too – could have set aside this week as being one that simply had to be on their schedules this season. After all, we aren’t talking about any old golfer. Palmer was the man who revolutionised golf and the leading players raking in fortunes from the game today have him to thank for that.
The absentees, of course, will point to the difficulties when it comes to scheduling and trying to ensure they are preparing the best way possible for The Masters, which is now just three weeks away.But this was once, surely, when all the game’s leading lights should have gone that extra mile to provide the most fitting honour possible for Palmer. Golf can’t always be about winning titles, even if they happen to be majors, and well done to those who have adopted that attitude this week.
Indeed, for all the scaremongering last week, the field is pretty strong. The second strongest for the event, in fact, in the past decade. It’s headed by four of the world’s top five in Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and Henrik Stenson, with Rickie Fowler the other player from inside the top 10 paying his personal respect to Palmer by teeing it up this week. “It’s obviously an important one being right after his passing,” observed the 2015 Scottish Open champion, who felt so bad about missing the event 12 months ago that he paid a personal visit to Palmer to explain his reasons.
For the first time ever, I like Billy Horschel’s approach to this week. The man who partnered Fowler in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down when the duo were still cutting their teeth in the game has had Palmer’s iconic umbrella logo embroidered on all his clothing. He has also had it stamped on to his golf balls. That’s what you call showing respect.
A statue of Palmer has been erected close to the first tee and will feature in thousands of photographs as spectators pay their own tributes, just as the ones who signed a special wall in the tented village did at the Ryder Cup. Make no mistake about it, this has to be a week when everyone with a love for the game should take a few seconds and remember Palmer and what he did for the sport.
“There are just some tournaments you need to gain perspective and say I can take one week a year and have fun in honour of the man,” said Peter Jacobsen, who has been handed the task of being one of the event’s hosts this week along with Annika Sorenstam, Curtis Strange, Graeme McDowell and former US Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. “I hope every eligible player [plays] – and I know it won’t happen because of schedules – but a lot of us wouldn’t have these schedules if it weren’t for Arnold.”