ORLANDO -- Sean O'Hair was at Bay Hill on Monday for a 9 a.m. shotgun start -- about the same time tournament director Scott Wellington was informed by the PGA Tour that Ernie Els was pulling out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. O'Hair, who won the PODS Championship the day before, was fulfilling his obligation to play in a pro-am. Els, who won the Honda Classic eight days ago, and revealed that his five-year-old son, Ben, suffers from autism, three days ago, was backing out of his commitment to compete in Palmer's tournament.
In the case of events hosted by Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and Byron Nelson (when he was alive), a withdrawal requires a personal touch. Controversies erupted in 2007 when Rory Sabbatini mishandled his withdrawal from Tiger's Target World Challenge and Michelle Wie did the same with Sorenstam last year at the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika.
Palmer and Els talked at the Seminole Pro-Member the day after Ernie's win, with Els telling Palmer he was "very enthusiastic" about playing in his tournament. "I was very, very surprised to hear [about Els' withdrawal] this morning," Palmer said. "I am not sure what his reason is."
Els' management team e-mailed Wellington over the weekend, informing him that Ernie was thinking about pulling out. Later Monday, Els responded to the issue of not personally contacting Palmer. "As far as I'm concerned, Arnold Palmer is the King and I will always appreciate the start he gave me in 1993," Els said. "I will speak personally to him this week to explain why I had to withdraw â¿¿ I've played [Bay Hill] for 15 years and this year because of scheduling it just wasn't meant to be in particular after what's happened the last two weeks. I have things I need to take care of this week and I have to make sure my game and my body is in perfect shape in the run up to the Masters."
Els signed up for all four Florida Swing events knowing he could pull out of one. After winning the Honda Classic he missed the cut in heavy winds at the PODS Championship, and subsequently decided he wanted to spend time with David Leadbetter and strength coach Josh Saltzman to regroup after the poor outing. He told Golf Channel in another interview that he was going to be in Orlando early in the week, working on his game at Lake Nona, where he is renting the house he once owned. He is traveling back to Jupiter later in the week to practice at The Bears Club and then drive to Miami for the WGC-CA Championship, before returning to Orlando for the Tavistock Cup. He is scheduled to play the Shell Houston Open the week before The Masters.
O'Hair committed to the Monday pro-am prior to the PODS because he needed the work. Prior to winning at Innisbrook, he had missed two straight cuts and only banked $40,000 for the year. He told tournament officials that he wanted a photo taken with Palmer, and Arnold responded by meeting him on the golf course to honor the request.
"I kind of remembered after I won that I had to play in a pro-am today," O'Hair said Monday at Bay Hill. "[Pulling out] is not something you do, I don't think. By winning, that doesn't mean I don't have to be here today. I didn't want to put the tournament in a bad spot, so here I am."
-- Tim Rosaforte