Four years ago, Arnold Palmer joked that he was going to break Rory McIlroy’s arm if he didn’t come play in his tournament at Bay Hill. In 2015, McIlroy honored the request, playing in the namesake’s Invitational for the first time. He returned last year, too.
When McIlroy shows up for this year’s tournament in two weeks, there will be a sizable void left by Palmer, who passed away from heart complications last September at the age of 87.
“I played the last couple of years because I knew it might be the last time he would be there,” McIlroy said. “If there was a sense of duty to play it was probably last year.”
If commitment to the event was apparent to players like McIlroy during Palmer’s life, there’s now a question of what obligation he and his peers might feel to the event in his absence. It’s worth noting that McIlroy is an exception among top players competing in the first tournament since The King’s passing. Among those skipping this year are Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed and Phil Mickelson.
“There’s not a player out here who doesn’t respect Arnie; everybody loved him,” says Ian Poulter, who asked for an exemption into this year’s tournament and received it. “The course might not suit everybody’s eye and because of that some guys might not play. What’s also difficult is it’s a busy calendar.”
For the second straight year Palmer’s tournament is sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, as opposed to past years when the WGC-Dell Match Play was typically played earlier in the season. It will again be contested the week after Palmer’s, with the Masters just two weeks after that.
Scott, for example, played at Bay Hill last year among other times but is changing this schedule this season to play the week before the Masters, meaning he will tee it up four times in seven weeks leading into the year’s first major.
Thomas said he loves the course and would have loved to play this year, except one of his best friends is also getting married that weekend.
Johnson has played there previously but not since 2011 when he missed the cut. This year, he’ll instead play the Match Play, Houston and the Masters in succession. Spieth, who has never played the tournament, will follow the same order, though did say Palmer’s tournament is “an event I have considered and do consider every year.”
Similarly, Mickelson and Reed will be in the field for the Match Play and Houston.
“You want it to be a great tournament,” McIlroy said. “But there’s going to be guys who miss it for personal reasons or scheduling reasons and that’s understandable.”
But what will it mean for the event now that Palmer is no longer there?
For decades, the Byron Nelson was the only stop on Tour named after a player, taking on the moniker in 1968. It wasn’t until 2007 that Palmer’s name was added to the title of his event.
Throughout much of the history of the Nelson, many of the game’s best players showed up and won there -- from Jack Nicklaus, Chi-Chi Rodriguez and Tom Watson, to Fred Couples and Nick Price, to Ernie Els, Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
In the last few years of Nelson’s life players continued to come, too, much the way they have at Bay Hill. From 2004 to 2006, the year Nelson passed away, the event averaged a 506 strength of field rating (by comparison, Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament last year was the only regular Tour stop to surpass that total).
In the years following, however, there was a significant decline. From 2007 through 2011, the Nelson averaged a rating of just 251, with the lowest points in that span coming in 2010 and 2011 when it didn’t top the 200 mark.
In layman’s terms, the tournament runs in the middle of the pack at best these days.
Does the same fate await Palmer’s event?
It’s impossible to predict but many don’t think so.
“It’s always going to have a strong field,” insists Poulter. “It’s a good golf course and at a good time of year.”
It helps, too, that it carries more gravitas than Nelson’s event. For one, it’s an invitational. For another, in 2014 the Tour designated a three-year exemption to the event’s winner, as opposed to the normal two at most other regular stops, and this year the purse will get a substantial boost, going from $6.3 million to $8.7 million.
There will also be a number of tributes to Palmer both tournament week and throughout the season. A 13-foot bronze statue of The King will be unveiled March 11. Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who like Palmer played collegiately at Wake Forest, will attend the unveiling ceremony.
A collection of Palmer memorabilia will also be on display during this the 39th edition of his event, including trophies, medals and other items from his office in his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., along with his signature golf cart that he would ride around the property and two large bags of his clubs, which will be on display at the 16th tee, a favorite spot of Palmer’s to watch players come through.
There are plans being laid well beyond this year’s tournament, too.
“We know it’s equally if not more important to maintain the relationship, respect, and interest of the Tour players beyond this year,” said tournament director Marci Doyle. “We have been putting a number of elements in place as a long-term strategy, in order to plan for (Palmer's) legacy well beyond his lifetime.”
Some examples include reminding players of that legacy, working with the event’s partners to ensure a favorable spot on the schedule and extending corporate sponsorships.
“I'm not concerned about it,” Poulter added. “I think the tournament's going to be in good shape.”
Palmer means that much, to the event and to golf.
“I would always go see him that week, spend some time with him up in his office,” said Brandt Snedeker. “It was neat to see him in his element, even the last couple of years to see how busy he was. It was the highlight of my week.
“It will be somber this year. I’ll still go see the girls upstairs there but it will be a little weird with him not there.”