Bay Hill wrestles with schedule changes and a crowded PGA Tour calendar

March 09, 2020

Tyrrell Hatton dealt with the winds just a little better than everyone else Sunday and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Hatton won with a four-under-par 284, the highest winning score in the tournament’s history—dating to 1979. High winds made the golf course extremely difficult—to put it mildly—with only four players finishing under par. U.S. Open-type scoring.

Tough playing conditions won’t jeopardize the tournament’s future. But the PGA Tour schedule might.

Next year, according to the tentative schedule being circulated but not yet made public, the API would come during a four-week stretch that would begin in Los Angeles at Riviera, then go to Mexico for a World Golf Championship event, followed by the API and the Players Championship.

The L.A. event is hosted by Tiger Woods and is played on what is considered one of the best golf courses on tour. It drew nine of the world’s top-10 players this year. Mexico has no cut and a purse of $10.5 million. The Players has the biggest purse on tour—$15 million—and is considered a must play by most players.

“They’re gambling that Arnold’s legacy will be enough for them to survive in that slot,” said one tournament director, “but how many guys are going to play four in a row during that stretch? Not many.”

This year’s field at Bay Hill included five of the world’s top 10—including No. 1 Rory McIroy and No. 3 Brooks Koepka—and nine of the top 20. That’s not a bad number, but the tournament came after the Honda Classic, which drew only three of the top 10. Wind or no wind, players don’t love the course at Bay Hill the way they love Riviera, and, although the Palmer family—led by grandson Sam Saunders—has worked very hard to continue to make the week appealing to the players, how exactly do you replace The King?

“I actually think the tournament will be OK,” Davis Love III said on Monday. “I think the tour’s taken steps to protect it—upping the purse and giving the winner a three-year exemption. All of that helps.”

The purse this year was $9.3 million—identical to L.A. and to Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament. Both those events also carry three-year exemptions and are “invitationals,” meaning the fields are smaller. That’s also true of the API.

There’s a larger issue here, though, which goes beyond any one event: The tour now has so many events that carry some kind of “special” designation that getting stars to play in non-special events is becoming more and more difficult.

Right now, a star player can meet his 15-tournament minimum without ever playing in a “non-special” tournament: There are four majors, four WGCs, three playoff events, the three invitationals and the Players.

There are also two more events in Asia—other than the WGC event there—that sponsors encourage players to play to promote their products on that side of the world.

And all of that doesn’t include the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, which has had difficulty drawing a stellar field for years and has been the subject of lengthy debates in Policy Board meetings.

Paul Goydos, who now plays on the PGA Tour Champions, was in a number of those meetings and once commented, “The problem you have is, you’re playing halfway across the world right after New Year’s on the side of a volcano.”

That problem hasn’t changed.

Goydos, who won at Bay Hill in 1996, sees API’s potential problems as part of the way golf is changing.

“When I won there, Bay Hill had one of the best 10 fields of the year, maybe top five outside of the majors,” he said, “but that was before there were playoffs, and when WGCs were just about coming on-line. And there was Arnold, of course.

“We’re much more of a worldwide sport now,” Goydos said. “The European Tour has the Rolex Series, which means they have several events that are absolutely top tier. The PGA Tour still has far more top-tier events and bigger purses, but I think the trend in the next 10 or 20 years is going to be toward a worldwide tour. I do think Bay Hill will be part of that because of Arnold’s legacy. I wonder what happens to really good events in Charlotte or San Diego or Hartford who don’t have that kind of protection.”

That is a long-term issue that many tournaments may have to deal with as the game becomes even more global than it already is. (And that doesn’t even account for what might happen if the Premier Golf League somehow comes to be and changes the pro golf landscape.) The short-term issue for the API is this: What will its field look like next year?

Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Final Round

David Cannon

Some top players—like McIlroy—will always play there out of deference to Palmer. Woods, who didn’t play this year because of stiffness in his surgically repaired back, has won the tournament eight times. But he’ll play Los Angeles and will probably play Mexico—he’s won 18 WGCs in his career—and wouldn’t miss the Players unless he’s injured. Clearly, at 45 next year, he isn’t going to play four tournaments in a row.

“When you bunch four big events like that together, I think they all get hurt to some degree,” Goydos said. “Some top guys [including Phil Mickelson, a past champion] skipped Mexico this year. The travel isn’t easy, and they’re playing 8,000 feet above sea level on a funky golf course. I can see guys deciding to pass Mexico and play Bay Hill. But you can never be sure.”

Which is what worries any tournament director: You can never be sure. In the old days, Bay Hill was the third stop on the four-stop Florida swing: Doral, Honda, Bay Hill and the Players. Honda was the “skip” event for top players for years until it found a true home at PGA National and moved to the week ahead of Doral when Doral became a WGC. The WGC moving to Mexico and jumping ahead of Honda on the calendar hasn’t helped the field there the past three years.

Now, Honda would come the week after the Players, and tournament director Ken Kennerly is hoping that players will look at it a bit the way they do the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, which comes the week after the Masters—an easy commute and a more relaxed atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the API will probably find out a lot about its future next year. If enough top players skip Mexico to play Bay Hill, the tournament will be fine. If not …

“Keep this in perspective,” Goydos said. “You don’t just look at raw ranking numbers in today’s world. Rory will play; Brooks will probably play. If Tiger and Phil play, then they’ve got a field that makes TV happy. And that’s at least half the battle.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. In addition to Woods hitting his mid-40s, Mickelson will turn 50 in June. Love, who turns 56 next month, points out that Bay Hill “is not an easy golf course for us old guys”—even Hall of Famers.

McIlroy and Koepka weren’t happy with their weekends: McIlroy 73-76; Koepka 81 on Saturday—but both are likely to understand this year’s weather was an outlier.

In all, it is hard to envision the tour not continuing to protect the API and Palmer’s legacy. Then again, time—and corporate dollars—wait for no one, especially in professional golf.