PGA Tour

Honoring Arnie: History of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Hearts are heavy on the PGA Tour this week, as players gather at Bay Hill for the first playing of the Arnold Palmer Invitational since The King’s passing last September.

It’s only fitting to start this post with one of Palmer’s last highlights, in his final appearance at Bay Hill in 2004. Never one to lay up, the 74-year old hit driver off the deck on 18 and pulled off an absolutely inch-perfect stinger, skirting the water and ending up pin high:

Palmer finished at 79 on the day, and PGATour.com served up a few highlights from his round here.

The King will be missed this week (and always), and folks in Orlando are honoring his memory in several ways. The Tour unveiled a statue:

Smylie Kaufman and others have adorned their bags with Palmer’s iconic umbrella:

And on Tuesday, Morning Drive aired a snippet of a time-lapse video of different Tour players sitting at Arnie’s desk in his office at Bay Hill and signing memorabilia, just as The King did day after day.

But amid the memories, there is a golf tournament to play. And one with an interesting, and inclusive, history.

Tournament Roots

Pro golf has been played in the Orlando area since at least 1966, when the contradictorily named Florida Citrus Open Invitational was played at Rio Pinar Country Club. In 1979, the tournament moved to Bay Hill Club and Lodge, which Arnold Palmer had purchased five years previously. Known for long years simply as “Bay Hill,” the tournament was first played under the “Arnold Palmer” moniker in 2007.

As its name suggests, the Arnold Palmer Invitational has a lot more freedom in determining its field of players than most tournaments do. One of five invitational tournaments on Tour (the others being the Heritage, Crowne Plaza at Colonial, Memorial, and Quicken Loans/Sub-Prime National), the #APInv boasts a 120-player field with 18 sponsor’s exemptions, which is double the average number of exemptions available in a typical 156-player field.

Though it might irk the casual golf fan who loves to root for Rory or DJ, increasing the number of sponsors’ exemptions only ups the chances for something truly remarkable to happen. Case in point: Billy Hurley’s storybook win at last year’s Quicken Loans (h/t Justin Ray on that info).

Three years ago, the Tour put the Arnold Palmer Invitational on par (top-notch golf pun) with the Memorial, Tour Championship, and World Golf Championships, granting the winner of the AP a three-year PGA Tour exemption. With the backing of one of the game’s great players; the smaller, quirkier field; and now the added winner’s bonus, the Arnold Palmer Invitational has always been a well-attended event on tour.

Except this year, it’s different. With the World Golf Championship event moving from Florida to Mexico City, and the Match Play in Austin next week, many top players are… brace yourself… bailing on Bay Hill.

What?!

Oh, the #takes!

GASP!

Paul Regali (@ghostofhogan on Twitter) dropped some Dave’s Ultimate Insanity-level input on the issue:

It’s a complicated issue, because this year’s Tour schedule looks different than previous years. Players skipping Bay Hill (DJ, Spieth, Phil, JT) have a pretty strong reason to do so, with the next three tournaments being the WGC Match Play in Austin, the Houston Open (aka Augusta Lite), and the Masters.

Wherever you stand on the issue, we can all agree that Arnie’s tournament should retain its status as a premier event on the PGA Tour.

Past Winners

Bay Hill is one of several courses where Tiger Woods amassed enough prize money for a fleet of supercars. Big Cat took home eight titles here, including streaks of 3 (2001-03), 2 (2008-09), and 2 (2012-13). Six other players have won the event twice: Jerry Heard, Gary Koch, Tom Kite, Loren Roberts, Ernie Els, and Matt Every.

Notable Finishes

Oh boy. This is where things get good. Honestly, you might want to head to the tournament’s highlights section and drink it all in. I’ll try to spotlight the best ones here.

2015

You get a double eagle! YOU get a double eagle!

Berger’s and Johnson’s albatrosses were the first two of these rarest birds spotted at Bay Hill since the tournament moved there in 1979. Also, recent NLU podcast guest Matt Every defended his crown.

2013

Tiger

His win here brought him back to world No. 1 for the first time in over two years, and jumpstarted a season that ended with a PGA Tour Player of the Year Award.

2003

Tiger.

It’s a three-minute video, but it’s worth it for that vintage Big Cat motion.

1990

In possibly the most Greg Norman finish of all time, 21-year-old rookie Robert Gamez holed a 176-yard approach shot on the 18th hole, forcing Norman to birdie one of his final two holes to force a playoff. Of course Norman failed to do so, handing Gamez his first Tour win. The entire New York Times recap reads like the man behind the typewriter had once lost a girlfriend to the Shark: the knife-twisting is deep and intentional. A sample:

Norman, who missed a 10-foot putt on the 17th green and a sliding 15-footer on the 18th green, has had a history of being stunned by sensational shots on the final hole of tournaments.

On the second hole of the 1987 Masters playoff, Mize chipped in from off the 12th green. On the final hole of the 1986 Professional Golfers Association Championship, Bob Tway holed a bunker shot at the 18th green. But when asked after Gamez’s holed 7-iron if he felt snake-bit, Norman said, ”No.”

Greg was extra salty after the win, saying: ”I still haven’t seen Gamez swing a golf club…If he can hole a shot like that, I guess he can play.”

1982

Tom Kite laid down some foreshadowing for his 1992 U.S. Open victory by chipping in to win a three-man playoff.

1980

Dave Eichelberger won the event by three shots, but the real winner of the day was the weather. If this newspaper report can be believed, the wind chill was a balmy 10 degrees at Bay Hill, with gusts up to 40 MPH. Eichelberger shot a 74, which was one of the best rounds of the day (Ray Floyd shot a one-over 72 for low round honors; Peter Jacobson took 88 strokes to get himself off the course). Eichelberger’s score becomes more incredible considering his attire: a ski cap, a golf shirt, four sweaters, a windbreaker, panty hose, and two pairs of pants.

1976

Hale Irwin channeled most of Golf Twitter and went off on the NBC Sports schedule makers. Irwin won the event in a playoff over Kermit Zarley (presumed cousin of Mr. DeFrog), but the event had to be finished Monday morning after darkness suspended play Sunday night. Also, there’s a veiled Larry Bird reference in that story.

Odds and Ends

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