It does not matter who wins the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week because whoever does will still come in second to the legacy of the man whose name is on the logo. Therefore, it shouldn’t matter who is playing in the tournament either, right?
So much fuss was made over those who chose to skip this week’s tournament. Why?
Robert Damron went as far to say that players “are not backing [their respect for Palmer] by showing up,” in a segment on Golf Channel. It’s a criticism that tracks its roots to his anger over many players skipping Palmer’s memorial service last fall.
Is it justified?
To be fair and transparent, four of the top five golfers in the world are playing (only Dustin Johnson isn't, though Jordan Spieth was in the top five last week before Henrik Stenson overtook him at the Valspar). After that, 37 of the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings are playing. As of the writing of this piece, the tournament’s strength of field will be the second strongest regular PGA Tour event of 2017, according to the Official World Golf Ranking. The field is 31 percent stronger than it was last year, the last one Palmer got to witness.
Playing in this tournament should not be a prerequisite for honoring Mr. Palmer. How one grieves, honors, remembers or celebrates is not measured by activity. It can’t be judged. The truth is that there are a number of realities that make this tournament a tough play for ALL of the great players.
Schedule: This stretch of the newly dubbed Spring Swing is brutal. With two World Golf Championships within a month of each other, not to mention a desire to rest/reload for the Masters, you can’t play every week. Having an event in Mexico City has added a logistical road block to this stretch as well. Both the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship saw a dramatic decline in field strength this year. The fact that the strongest Florida field is at Bay Hill should be a point of pride for organizers.
Course: There is nothing wrong with Bay Hill, but it also lacks the polish and prestige to make it a destination stop. The West Coast Swing is drawing more players because the course rotation is epic. Purists (and players) will tell you that Bay Hill is behind PGA National and Innisbrook’s Copperhead as the best tracks played in Florida. Palmer’s draw should be championed for attracting players all these years.
Money: Tournament organizers and the PGA Tour are doing noble work to make Palmer’s tournament feel greater. Like Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial, the purse this week is bigger, and the perks for winning greater – a three-year PGA Tour exemption. Guess who doesn’t need either of those? The top players in the world. The irony here is that the tournament that champions the man who made professional athletes profitable, won’t attract every top player because they don’t need to play every week.
This tournament isn’t going anywhere. Arnold Palmer’s legacy isn’t either. Each year will offer refreshed ways to celebrate the most influential man in golf. Like Byron Nelson’s tournament in Dallas, there may need to be an iterative evolution of the event to keep it fresh, but the name will always carry.
Don’t worry about the field. It is really good. Worry, instead, about remembering Arnold Palmer. Wherever you are, the King lives, no matter who’s playing.
The Other Winner
Each week during the season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Patrick Cantlay: He earned enough by finishing second to Adam Hadwin to satisfy the requirements of his medical extension. He did it in just two starts. He now has full status again on the PGA Tour, after suffering unimaginable tragedies. He wasn’t satisfied.
“It doesn’t feel like much consolation at the moment,” he said to me on PGA Tour Radio after his round on Sunday. “I didn’t close the deal.”
It was shocking. It was honest. It was awesome.
Cantlay was born to win golf tournaments. He was the best amateur on the planet for a full year, which is hard to do. He was the next coming of [insert young superstar player here], only better to some.
The way he acted (five birdies in six holes on a Sunday in contention) and the way he reacted, it showed how his instincts and fire to win are still there. If his body cooperates, it shouldn’t be long.