One final ride: Looking back on Arnold Palmer's final week hosting at Bay Hill
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One final ride: Looking back on Arnold Palmer’s final week hosting at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20: Arnold Palmer smiles following Jason Day's one stroke victory on the 18th hole green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Cy Cyr/PGA TOUR)

Arnold Palmer was sitting in his signature golf cart – complete with his umbrella logo on the side – alongside his wife, Kit. They were on the par-5 16th hole at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge, following his grandson Sam Saunders late in day of Thursday’s first round of the 2016 Arnold Palmer Invitational.

In the waning light after the broadcast, former pro and current NBC golf commentator Peter Jacobsen spotted the tournament host and walked like a man on a mission from the TV compound on 16 fairway to Palmer’s cart near the tee. This perch was one of the King’s absolute favorite spots to watch golf on his entire course.

The 86-year-old was so locked in watching Saunders that he didn’t even turn around as Jacobsen, a very good friend from the past 35 years, put his arm on the King’s shoulder.

“So I said ‘Arnold, Sam’s doing well’ and he turned to me and said ‘Hop in the cart’,” Jacobsen said.

Kit scooted over and Jacobsen joined them for what would become a cherished memory.

The three hours that the golf legend spent driving around to watch his grandson play would become Palmer’s last appearance of significant time in front of golf fans. Though he didn’t pass away until September of that year, he wouldn’t spend this much time in the public eye again as failing health eventually kept him out of the public spotlight.

The month following his event, Palmer only briefly attended the ceremonial first tee shots at Augusta National for the Masters. He didn’t hit a tee shot due to concerns over balance. Unbeknownst to the several hundred fans along the back nine, they were present for a final hoorah with the King.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 17: Arnold Palmer watches as his grandson Sam Saunders tees off on the 10th hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 17, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

Saunders played with young standouts Maverick McNealy (20) and Ryan Ruffels (17) that Thursday and Friday. McNealy was that year’s Arnold Palmer Cup representative, and Ruffels played on a sponsor’s exemption.

McNealy and Saunders grabbed lunch together in Bay Hill’s players lounge Thursday, and Palmer would follow much of their round.

“Arnold was so proud watching Sam play, because he’d learned everything from Arnold. Sam was his protégé,” Jacobsen said. “It was just a special time that day at Bay Hill. He was so into Sam’s round, probably more than he was ever into his own rounds. He was focused on his swing, focused on his ball flight.”

Twelve-year veteran API volunteer Lori Basch was marshaling on the 18th hole during that first round, and she also picked up on Palmer’s intensity.

“He was watching every shot with bated breath,” Basch recalled. “He wasn’t sitting there dabbing with his buddies; he was talking in between shots, of course, but you could tell he was just really into watching every shot that Sam hit.”

To Ruffels’ swing coach Denis McDade, the King seemed like the relatable everyman most of us remember. The Aussie, though, didn’t see the same intensity that others saw coming from Palmer.

“I remember looking at him and he could have been any parent or grandparent watching their son or daughter compete,” McDade said recently. “He didn’t appear to be out there with a critical eye. He just seemed to be out there enjoying the fact that his grandson was playing an event on the PGA Tour. That’s what it felt like to me.”

And what did it feel like to Palmer’s grandson and those two young playing partners to have the King fixated on their every move?

“I felt like ‘Oh my gosh, I hope he’s not making them nervous,’” Saunders said of his grandfather’s effect on McNealy and Ruffels. “My grandad was literally driving down the middle of the fairways in his cart.”

He was also stopping and taking pictures with a few of his adoring fans. You know, Arnie being Arnie. As fans would shout “We love you, Arnie” and “Let’s go Arnie!” He’d respond with that signature thumbs up and a smile.

Both McNealy and Ruffels were ecstatic to have this unique opportunity to play in front of Palmer,

“This is something I'm going to tell my kids and grandkids about; I got to play the back-nine of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with Arnold Palmer watching,” McNealy said at the time. “That was the coolest moment in my life for sure.”

Ruffels, who was born at the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children just 12 miles away from Bay Hill, echoed McNealy’s sentiment.

“Wow, that’s amazing how you feel in those moments. It was pretty special,” Ruffels said at the time, making his third start as a pro. “You don’t get that very often where you have Mr. Palmer following you around for nine holes around his golf course and his tournament.

“I was pretty nervous there on the 10th tee. Normally you get the first-tee nerves, I had the first- and tenth-tee nerves today, but I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.”

At this stage in his life, Palmer wasn’t always as energetic as he once was. However, former API Executive Director (2004-2016) Scott Wellington was impressed with Palmer’s stamina during a busy Tuesday through Friday stretch that week.

“I was amazed at that moment with his ability to rally when he needed to. Amy (Saunders), his daughter and I, we were all like ‘Wow, he’s putting on a great show.’ He always did, but that last year was difficult,” Wellington said.

It was difficult for Palmer’s long-time publicist Doc Giffin to see Palmer not be up to his typical “winning” self.

“He didn’t have the same energy level at all, and didn’t spend as much time in the office as he typically would,” Giffin said.

Palmer got out of a cart on tournament Monday and a volunteer cheerfully said, “It’s going to be a great day,” to which Palmer responded, “I’m not so sure.” Bystanders that week said he walked gingerly and didn’t look sure of his steps.

On the eighth green that Thursday, Palmer took a shortcut with his cart down a slope toward the bunker right of the green. The cart began to sway and nearly tipped from the steep slope until a security guard thankfully put a strong arm up to save what would have been a nasty fall. Even at 86, Palmer, who always said you have to “play boldly to win,” was still driving a bit too boldly.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20: Arnold Palmer and his wife Kathleen "Kit" Palmer watch play on the 16th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Cy Cyr/PGA TOUR)

Despite having lost some of what made him so endearing, Palmer still exuded his love for his fans and the players.

“When he was around people he was just on, that was him, his personality,” Wellington said.

Palmer shook hands and spoke with many players that Thursday, including veteran Billy Hurley III, whose very first PGA Tour event was as a sponsor’s exemption to the API in 2006. Hurley felt lucky to be able to spend time and speak with Palmer, especially in Palmer’s final API in 2016.

“You shake his hand out there and it’s a special thing as a player,” Hurley said, “especially after what he meant to my career.”

Hurley appreciated when Palmer would ask him things like “What happened to your Navy Midshipmen last night? They got beat pretty bad on the court,” referring to Hurley’s alma mater Navy’s college basketball team.

Palmer remembered details about his friends.

Perhaps fittingly, Palmer and his grandson wore the same colors that first round Thursday in 2016: a lime green shirt with light, khaki pants. Saunders was in golf shoes, and Palmer was in his signature penny loafers. The King looked true to his era’s style with his button up short-sleeve Bay Hill logo shirt – save for the giant iPhone snug into his shirt pocket with his glasses.

Ruffels recalls seeing Palmer, who loved snacking on snacked on peanut butter M&Ms, take shortcuts across the 11th green with his cart as he followed Sam.

“I remember telling my caddie ‘Wow, he’s literally the only person on the planet that could do that and it’s fine,’” Ruffels said. “He’s at his home course, and he’s running the show.”

That last Thursday at Bay Hill reminded Jacobsen of another time that the King went inside the ropes to watch the action 14 years prior. Jacobsen was first out by himself that Sunday morning and needed a marker.

“Nobody wants to play alone. So I went up to Arnie’s office and he goes, ‘Let me think about it’,” Jacobsen said. “Ten minutes later he said, ‘How about my grandson, Sam?’”

So Sam got his first taste of Bay Hill under tournament conditions as a non-competing marker.

“Arnie followed behind us in the fairway and I kept asking marshals ‘Can you get this old man and his cart off the fairway please? He’s bothering my game,’’Jacobsen said. "So we had a kick out of it.”

Palmer and Saunders spent many hours at Bay Hill on the range developing Saunders’ game, and their relationship. Saunders considered his grandfather more of a tough-love kind of guy than one who would always tell him how proud he was of him. Then in 2009, Saunders experienced a turning point with his grandfather’s tough love.

“He knew I needed to toughen up at some point. He knew I needed some thick skin because there were always going to be a lot of things said about me because I was Arnold Palmer’s grandson,” Saunders recalled. “People just assumed that everything was handed to me; he knew I needed to be able to handle it and not let it bother me.”

So Palmer decided to poke fun at Saunders in front of some lodge guests: “He said, 'This boy is going to end up digging ditches. He doesn’t listen to me.’ Then he came up to me with his big, giant fist and said, ‘What are you going to do if I pop you in the face?’”

Saunders immediately got right back in his grandpa’s face.

“I told him I would knock him out in a certain way, and I can’t believe I said it, as it was kind of a natural reaction,” Saunders said. “I saw a tear of joy in his eye because he was so proud that I stood up to him, not in a disrespectful way, but he was asking for it. So I gave it right back to him.

“That was a little bit of a changing point for us, he told me, ‘You finally understand why I am the way I am to you,’ and we had a mutual respect from that point going forward."

Saunders, who first earned his PGA Tour card for the 2014-15 season, sensed a lot of pride from Palmer during that late afternoon in 2016.

“I know in that moment he was proud of me, I had established myself as a PGA Tour player,” Saunders said. “I didn’t play that great (74 on Thursday and a missed cut), I think just the sense of pride for him to know that he’s made it out there on his own. (Sam) isn’t a sideshow as a sponsor exemption every week anymore; I was a full-fledged PGA Tour player. Despite some of the great opportunities I had, it was tougher in a lot of ways too – and he knew that – and he was proud of the fact that I got out there on my own and I was able to do my thing, finally.”

For the grandson of a mega-legend, that was no small feat, and Palmer autobiographer James Dobson recognized this.

“I think when Sam began to really find his game, that was a huge thing to Arnold, and I think it probably helped keep him alive a little longer,” Dobson said.

Sam Saunders’ life has so many keystone moments at the API.

In the early 1990s as a kid, he would sell lemonade to fans along the 18th hole. Knowing what his grandson was doing, Palmer would sign autographs right of the 18th fairway to help out his grandson’s efforts.

Saunders caddied for Palmer in his final turn as a player in his own event back in 2004, when the King capped off his Bay Hill career with a stunning driver off the deck on his final hole.

“His biggest thing was he didn’t want to embarrass himself (that week),” Saunders said. “In that moment, my favorite part about it was he kind of forgot about embarrassing himself there and it was more about impressing me, because I was a good player, and I didn’t think he had that shot. I tried to call him off of it. But he gave everything he had to impress me in that moment and I think that’s why you saw that big smile on his face because he knew he did.”

For the millions of people who have seen that shot time and again, they notice Palmer’s reaction. Look closer; Sam had an unforgettable ear-to-ear grin.

This week marks the sixth Arnold Palmer Invitational since Palmer’s passing, and Saunders has no hesitation in how he wants his grandfather to be remembered by golf fans.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20: Arnold Palmer smiles following Jason Day's one stroke victory on the 18th hole green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Cy Cyr/PGA TOUR)

“It would just be his positive attitude, his positive impact, and his ability to give back,” Saunders said. “This is a tough time for a lot of people. I keep thinking as to how he would handle this time right now and I’d like to think that he’d just say, ‘Pick your chin up and keep going.’ His never-quit attitude is probably something I want people to remember this year. And his philanthropic side, give back to people and be kind to people.”

Indeed, that’s the spirit of the King.

About the author

Garrett Johnston

Garrett Johnston

Garrett Johnston is a golf journalist who has covered golf for over a decade and 30 major championships on site. Follow him on Twitter @JohnstonGarrett