10 things you need to know about this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard
Ask any tournament director on the PGA TOUR to pencil in his 'Dream Team' field, and each one would begin with two names: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. And both players are competing this week at Bay Hill. The participation of Woods, a six-time champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, came into question when a tight left Achilles forced him to limp off the 12th tee at Doral Resort's Blue Monster during the fi nal round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. But Woods proclaimed himself well enough to start hitting balls again late last week (3/16), and will arrive at Arnie's Place having dominated there as no other player has.
Woods is seeking his fi rst offi cial Tour victory since the fall of 2009, and he's quite at home on the fairways of Bay Hill. Since missing the cut there as an amateur in 1994, Woods has made 14 starts and never missed a weekend. He also won the fi rst of his three U.S. Junior Amateurs at Bay Hill, in 1991. Under the tutelage of Sean Foley, Woods' swing is in considerably better shape than it was a year ago at this time, when the two still were working out many of the kinks. Woods departed Doral leading the Tour in total driving (a combination of driving distance and driving accuracy) after fi nishing 186th in that category in 2011.
Phil Mickelson won the 1997 API, roaring home in 6-under 30 on the back nine, sparked by an eagle at the par-5 12th set up when he hit driver off the deck for his second shot. He enters this year's event already having won in 2012, as he fi red a closing 64 to capture the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am playing alongside Woods in the next to last group. Mickelson lost in a playoff (to Bill Haas) at the Northern Trust. This will be Mickelson's 13th appearance at Bay Hill.
The Southern Amateur champion traditionally plays at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. Harris English will continue that tradition, though it wasn't his amateur exploits that earned him a tee time at Bay Hill. English is one of the PGA TOUR's top rookies and earned his spot in the API fi eld by standing 55th on the FedEx Cup points list entering Transitions. English, a University of Georgia product, advanced through last year's Q-School after winning a Nationwide Tour event as an amateur.
He'd made the cut in his fi rst six events this season, including three top-20 fi nishes, before missing the cut at Transitions. "I'm just still learning out here," English said humbly. "I just graduated from college six, seven months ago." PGA TOUR winners Webb Simpson and Kyle Stanley are among those to play at Bay Hill by virtue of winning the Southern Amateur.
English won't be the only player in the API fi eld who was competing in the Southeastern Conference less than a year ago. Bud Cauley also is in the fi eld, and like English, has impressed early in his PGA TOUR career. Cauley earned a PGA TOUR card in just eight starts in 2011, joining the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to earn a PGA TOUR card directly out of college without going to Q-School. Cauley has past experience at Bay Hill, having played the AJGA's HP Boys Invitational here. These rookies look ready to impress.
Want to catch a superstar of tomorrow? Then take a look on the pairings sheet and follow Ryo Ishikawa. Japan's Bashful Prince has competed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard the past three years, but this will be the fi rst time he does so as a PGA TOUR member. Ishikawa, ranked 47th in the world as he headed to the Transitions Championship, earned Tour member status by fi nishing runner-up to George McNeill at the recent Puerto Rico Open. It was his best fi nish in a PGA TOUR event.
Though it seems he has been around for some time, Ishikawa, who fi rst won on the Japan Tour as a 15-year-old amateur, is only 20 years old. He's one of golf's most exciting prospects, not only because of his advanced skill at such a young age, but for his picture-perfect swing and fl amboyant style.
Ishikawa, who has competed on two Presidents Cup teams, recently received a special invitation to compete at the Masters, where he fi nished 20th in 2011. His best Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard fi nish? He was 40th in 2010.
Many players at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard are looking forward to the Masters. Few may be more excited about the season's fi rst major than Kelly Kraft, the U.S. Amateur champion. Not only will the Masters be his fi rst major, but his fi nal event as an amateur. Kraft completed his collegiate career at SMU last spring. He stayed amateur for the summer to make the Walker Cup team, then anticipated turning pro this past fall for Q-School. Winning the U.S. Amateur helped him achieve his Walker Cup goal, but also delayed his pro debut. Turning down the traditional U.S. Amateur champion's invitation to Augusta National is all but impossible.
Kraft has enjoyed his extended amateur career. He's made two trips to Australia, fi nishing 19th at the Australian Open. Kraft arrives to Bay Hill as one of the world's top amateurs, ranking sixth in the R&A World Amateur Rankings. Kraft won four prestigious amateur events last year, the biggest being his U.S. Amateur triumph at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, where he beat Patrick Cantlay, the world's No. 1 amateur, in the fi nal. "I'm looking forward to competing," Kraft said.
The winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard dons a sporty blue blazer after his victory. But there will be green jackets on the minds of some players, too. Following Bay Hill, there will only be one opportunity to qualify for next month's Masters, the final spot being reserved for a player not otherwise eligible who captures next week's Shell Houston Open.
The API marks the final week for players to climb into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking to lock in a spot for the Masters. Among those who will start the week on the outside looking in: former API champion Ernie Els, who was ranked 68thentering Transitions. A two-time Masters runner-up, Els has played the Masters every year since his debut in 1994. He could get in should he win the API, which he has done twice â€“ 12 years apart â€“ the last victory coming just two years ago at Bay Hill. He has not won since.
"I just want to get my game back," Els said at Transitions. "If I play Augusta, great. If I don't, it's also fine. I can miss a year and I will be fine with that. I'll go on holiday with the kids or something like when I was a kid. Obviously I want to play, but really, I couldn't be bothered. I want to try and win and I want to get back to where I feel I need to be, and that'll take care of Augusta."
Dicky Pride, Bay Hill's own, put together back-to-backtop-10s at Mayakoba and at Honda for the first time in a career that dates back to 1992, a span that covered some 375 tournament starts. He was prepared to go to Panama for a Nationwide Tour event to start his March until his top-10 finish in Mexico earned him a spot at the Honda, and there he tied for seventh. Add those two performances to a tie for 20th in Puerto Rico, and Pride has earned $354,563 in three Tour starts this season, already assuring him his best financial campaign since 2007.
Few in the field know Bay Hill as well as Pride does. This will be his 15th start in the API, his best showing being a T-5 in 1999. Pride has played in enough club Shootouts that he's quick to note tournament host Arnold Palmer has taken some of his cash through the years. Yet Pride makes the point that "I'm up in advice and what I've learned from him. He's been very, very good to me."
Though the LPGA has featured many top South Korean players since the arrival of Orlandoan Se Ri Pak in the late 1990s,for years K.J. Choi was the lone male carrying his country's flag on the PGA TOUR.
Choi, who won The Players last spring and has seven other career victories on the PGA TOUR, leads Sang-Moon Bae and Seung-Yul Noh, two young, promising South Korean players, to Bay Hill.
Bae, 25, who entered the Transitions weekend in contention for his first PGATOUR title, earned his card in December shooting a final-round 6-under-par 66 to qualify for the 2012 campaign for the firsttime. He is 8-for-8 in making the cut on Tour this season.
Noh, 20, has a similar story, finishingT-3 at Q-School, garnering the right to playfull- time in 2012. He has only one missed cut in six career major appearances over the past three seasons.
How big is the growing golf influence from this tiny land? In Australia last November, PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem announced that South Korea would host the 2015 Presidents Cup.
Adding some spice to a Tour campaign in which Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy have won and Tiger Woods has contended again is this: No advantage seems safe anymore. Four times players have rallied from six to eight shots back after 54 holes to win in 2012. Kyle Stanley (Farmers Insurance Open) and Spencer Levin (Waste Management Phoenix Open) led by seven on Sunday but didn't winâ€“though Stanley remarkably rebounded with victory the next week at TPC Scottsdale.
The recent WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral served more volatility. Bubba Watson was three ahead starting Sunday and two behind after seven holes. Keegan Bradley led by two on the eighth green and lost by five.
"It certainly has been a crazy year from that perspective," Doral winner Justin Rose said. "The talent is so deep out here that the guys are good enough to get themselves into contention. But there's definitely something about learning how to win. Maybe there's a lot of players who are good enough to win but just have notquite learned it yet.
"That's what we're seeing. Obviously I think it's exciting times. It's exciting TV to see swings and changes like that on the leaderboard
Here's an interesting competition to watch if you're into this sort of thing. Webb Simpson and Bill Haas, the only twoactive PGA TOUR players from Wake Forest taking on Oklahoma State Cowboys Hunter Mahan, Charles Howell III and Bo Van Pelt in an unofficial money match for bragging rights here at Bay Hill.
Last year, the two Wake boys banked $10,435,000 for the season, before counting Haas' $10 million bonus for the FedExCup, while the three of the five active Cowboys' made $8,356,000, making the two schools the top two in earnings on TOUR for the season.
Why not a rematch for the week? Just for fun, of course.
Hunting an off-beat story almost three decades ago, Cleveland Plain Dealer golf writer George Sweda asked Arnold Palmer if he would join him in the Sears men's department at Randall Park Mall to see if fans recognized him. In town for a senior tournament, Palmer obliged him for about an hour one afternoon.
During one of his next visits to Cleveland, Palmer asked his scribe pal what stun the had for him this time. Well, Sweda told him, "I'd like to take you to my high school reunion this weekend and see what kind of reaction we get." And so the two hopped into a courtesy car and went to the dance together for a few minutes.
"The deejay paused the music and said, â€˜Ladies and gentlemen, one of the stars of your class, with one of the legends in sports,' " recalled Sweda, now retired. "It was hilarious. Arnold couldn't have been nicer. But that's him. We always had fun."
Some 30 years later, Palmer smiles at such stories that underscore his uncommon connection with the public and press. At 82, his career has spanned the soaring stages of all mediums - newspaper, radio, television, Internet and social, though he stops short of tweeting and texting. Along the way, he became something of the sporting model for public relations, never forgetting childhood lessons of kindness, befriending the Fourth Estate, embracing the repartee, ushering in golf's TV age with charges and charisma and help from friends Bob Hope and Dwight Eisenhower.
"I was aware of the reaction the writers took to people who didn't give them the courtesy of answering their questions," Palmer said from his office at Bay Hill Club & Lodge when asked to explain his bonding with people.
"That was important. I spent a lot of time with (sportswriters),talking to them and horsing around with them. I enjoyed it. They'd tell me stories and get on my case. I didn't mind it. I loved it."
The mutual trust was forged in a different era, when news media were less intrusive and the reporting not as vast or instant or critical. Yet, while writers and players aren't as chummy now, the same human principles apply, to hear Palmer.
"Point is, you can be congenial and nice, and it'll work. That's all I've ever done. My father always said to me, â€˜Don't be nasty. To anybody.' " Palmer pounded on his desk for effect, then added, "So I practiced that, treating other people like you'd want to be treated."
Palmer differed on that approach with his longtime agent, Mark McCormack, founder of IMG. McCormack thought his prized client overdid things and was too nice. But Palmer smiled onward.
A college student covering the Western Open in Chicago in the mid-1960s did a15-minute Palmer interview, only to discover he hadn't turned on his tape recorder. "Turn it on and we'll do it again," Palmer told him.
He took on the role of ambassador in part because he thought golf needed to attract more prize money. "Little did I think it would get to where it is now," he said. Long an avid newspaper reader, Palmer not only has mixed well with golf journalists over the years, he has hired them. Bob Drum of The Pittsburgh Press, whom Dan Jenkins labeled the "man who invented Arnold Palmer," wrote Palmer's first book.
Doc Giffin has been Palmer's personal assistant since being hired away from his PGA Tour press secretary job 45 years ago.
Bev Norwood has run the Bay Hill tournament media center since the 1970s.
"I've always thought people like him because they sense he likes them," said Giffin, who estimates Palmer has signed more than 1 million autographs, written meticulously so they are legible.
"Drum counseled him to be polite to writers. And it was his own natural instinct to be nice. Over 45 years, there have been people that I thought were insufferable and that Arnold shouldn't pay attention to them, but he was nice. I've never seen him run anybody off. He has a hard time saying no."
Drum was to Palmer what O.B. Keeler was to Bobby Jones, covering his favorite subject from junior golf to international glory. A larger-than-life character who amused Palmer, Drum was known to eat, drink and even travel with his famous Pennsylvania buddy. The dynamics of their relationship were never more significant than in 1960.
After 54 holes of the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer was in 15th place, seven strokes behind leader Mike Souchak. In the locker room before the last round, Palmer asked Drum what a closing 65 for 280 would get him. "He said, â€˜For you it'll do nothing,' "Palmer recalled. "He was very surly. As a friend, that was not nice. I knew why. Like me, Souchak was his buddy."
As it happened, Palmer birdied six of the first seven holes and then saw Drum walking down the fairway at the eighth.
"What are you doing out here?" Palmer asked."I heard you got something going," Drum said.
"Why don't you go follow your friend, "Palmer shot back, half-kidding. Moments later, Palmer bogeyed the eighth, missing a short putt. But he shot 65â€“280 and won his lone Open title.
A couple of weeks later, Palmer and Drum flew to Ireland together for the Canada (now World) Cup, then to the British Open.
On that trip, Palmer suggested the modern grand slam should consist of the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA. His biographer beat the drum, and the rest is history.
"I said it will become quite the thing someday," recalled Palmer, winner of seven major championships. "He made it a big thing within a month."
Drum got British media on board with the idea. It helped that Palmer, who finished second at that '60 Open at St. Andrews, and the U.K. writers got along well. In fact, they persuaded Palmer to stay over for the they could get him into the fi eld, Giffin said.
Or so they thought. Palmer flew to Paris on a military plane, but the French didn't let him play because he hadn't entered the tournament himself. No hard feelings, though. Five years later, Palmer entertained the British press at his Latrobe, Pa., home when the PGA Championship was at Laurel Valley.
Palmer liked bantering with the game's storytellers. The needle came out often. Palmer saw legendary Pittsburgh journalist Myron Cope on the first tee of a celebrity event not long after Cope said on air that golfers weren't athletes. "Well now," Palmer jabbed, "let's see how a real athlete hits the ball."
While playing Isleworth in Windermere, Fla., in the late 1980s, a visiting golf writer drove his cart to Palmer's onsite residence, only to have him notice the writer was using MacGregor Muirfield Nicklaus irons.
"Where'd you get those?" Palmer asked. "Jack sent them to me," he said.
"Well, go in the garage and get what you want."
The writer suggested a set be sent instead. A few holes later, Palmer joined the group and said, "I'm your opponent. Let's see how good those Nicklaus clubs are."
Hall of Famer Lanny Wadkins, who attended Wake Forest on a Palmer scholarship, says he marveled as a young professional when observing Palmer's patience and grace with people.
"He's a special person, but part of it was the era, too," Wadkins said. "It was a lot easier to be honest and open then because it wasn't going to end up on someone's Twitter or on YouTube video taken on a cellphone. You have to think twice about things today as opposed to 40 years ago."
Today, Palmer owns two golf clubs and part of Pebble Beach Golf Links, hosts a PGA TOUR event, owns a car dealership, is building a Latrobe hotel, oversees a course design business and, even as an octogenarian, remains a major commercial player on Madison Avenue. He spends five days per week in his office and plays golf about once a week, with customers or friends.
"I played yesterday, and I hate myself," he said, smiling, in yet another interview, one in a series of thousands. "It's very humiliating not to be able to play golf the way I once did.
"But it's better than being on the other side."
-by Golfweek Magazine, reprinted with permission, Golfweek Custom Media