The lights were on in the room below Arnold Palmer’s office when I drove into the parking lot at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge last week. Tidying up was Rick Roberts, the locker-room attendant who just celebrated his 15-year anniversary working at The King’s winter home.
Roberts turned to face the simple table where Palmer for so many years sat with friends and guests after the Bay Hill Shootout, or during those late-afternoon card games with his favorite cronies. Only in the past year was Palmer too weak to stand and greet the regulars or lodge guests staying at his resort.
“It comes in waves,” Roberts said. “I look at that table every once in a while and realize, there’s an empty seat there.”
One month after his passing, Palmer’s desk remains as he left it. “It’s like time stood still,” said close friend Bob Florio. “There’s still stuff for him to sign.”
Michael Koribana, Bay Hill’s sous chef, felt the same emotional waves. He remembers Palmer walking through his kitchen during football season, talking about the Steelers, ladling some chicken-noodle soup on the way back to the condo and occasionally grabbing a knife to show the chef how he wanted the lettuce cut in the Palmer salad.
“You look for him to be there, and he’s not,” said Koribana, a Bay Hill employee celebrating his 22nd anniversary in January. “We’re pretty much a family here, and there’s definitely a void the long-term workers notice.”
It seems like everybody is a long-term worker at Bay Hill. It will be the job of Palmer’s daughter Amy and his son-in-law Roy Saunders, the resort’s vice president, to make sure the legacy continues.
Making future decisions that must be made that much harder are the broken hearts left behind. “Everybody feels the same way,” Amy told me Sunday. “They feel like they’ve lost a friend.”
The time of year that Palmer was most visible at Bay Hill was early winter. When he came back for the season, immersed in preparations for the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, regular guests and members pretty much knew where Palmer could be found for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Roy Saunders recalled how Palmer would greet everybody “as if they were an old friend,” how he would “put down a fork to sign an autograph.”
“There’s a void, but you’ll always feel his presence,” Roy said. “The great thing about Bay Hill, it’s almost a museum in itself, with all of the wonderful photographs and all the people here. Everybody’s got an Arnold Palmer story. We’ve got a whole membership of people with Arnold Palmer stories.”
Hopefully that personal contact for which Palmer was famous will carry some loyalty among tour players for the tournament bearing his name. In a restructuring of the front office, former tournament director Scott Wellington has left for a senior-director position with the PGA of America. Replacing Wellington as COO is former director of sales and marketing Marci Baker. Amy Saunders will oversee the tournament, as well as Arnold Palmer Enterprises, the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation and Latrobe C.C. in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a little bit much to absorb right now,” she told me before breaking down. “I never know when it’s going to hit me.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Oct. 31, 2016 issue of Golf World.