Arnold Palmer is always looking for ways to make the tournament that bears his name a major golfing event
Say this about Arnold Palmer: when it comes to golf, whether he's playing it or contributing to it in some other fashion, he never takes his eye off the ball.
The legendary golfer and seven-time major championship winner doesn't play as much as he used to, but he's still active in the game in many ways, but, of course, no more so than in hosting the PGA TOUR tournament that bears his name. As the 35th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard approaches, Palmer has a laser focus on making sure that every detail is scrutinized so that when the game's best players arrive, they'll encounter an environment conducive to producing a first-class golf competition at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida.
The man known in and out of golf circles as "The King" can't wait to see what unfolds on his Championship Course, which he proudly says is "the best it's ever been.
"And I don't say that lightly, either. The golf course is in terrific shape coming out of the winter," Palmer, now 83 years old, adds with a smile that has warmed the hearts of millions of fans - known as Arnie's Army" - for decades. "We changed it two years ago. Those changes were good for the golf course, good for the competition, and we continue to assess those changes. By and large the players like what we have done, and if we continue to give them great conditions, then we think we have set the table for a great tournament.
"Our goal is to just keep getting better and better."
The 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard is scheduled for March 18-24, and in addition to a finely tuned golf course, there are other matters worthy of note - such as a purse of $6.2 million, an increase from $6 million in 2012. Also greeting players this year is a refurbished and renovated locker room that is more spacious and inviting.
One more addition is a larger field, at least for this year. The Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard will welcome 132 players, an increase of 12 participants. That means greater overall competition on the course and more entertainment for fans with more golfers to watch.
Most eyes will likely be on Tiger Woods. The No. 2 player in the world, Woods is the defending champion after winning his seventh professional title on the Championship Course last March. He's won eight times overall at Bay Hill with the inclusion of the 1991 USGA Junior Amateur crown.
"Tiger... heck, he'll probably win again. He likes the golf course, obviously," Palmer said, chuckling. "He has played it so well over the years. He seems encouraged by coming here, and he accepts the challenges that the course presents. It's a shot-maker's course, and Tiger can hit shots. We've all seen that. He does a lot of good things when he comes here."
Palmer points out that Woods won even though the golf course has been changed. One of the most significant alterations has been the installation of runoffs leading from the edges of the greens, giving the Championship Course more of a look and a feel of the challenge associated with Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament. For that reason, among others, many top players elect to compete at Bay Hill and get their games ready for the year's first major championship.
"Thanks to the subtle changes we made to the greens, we can do a few more interesting things to challenge the guys," Palmer said. "We can do quite a bit with the holes and the runoffs, and bringing in a bit more risk and reward, which adds a little excitement.
"We like to think what makes it attractive for the guys to come here is the kind of test they get, particularly on the second shots. They have to really come here with a good iron game if they want to challenge those pins, otherwise, they're going to get some short-game practice, which of course never hurts them in preparing for Augusta. They also have to choose how they play their short shots, whether putting it or some different kinds of chips or pitch shots.
"We like to stress that we want the golf course to be the best it can be as far as quality of its conditioning," Palmer added. "We don't strive to make it purposefully difficult. It's plenty difficult all on its own, and that's
if you're hitting good golf shots. If you're not playing well, then you're going to struggle. We think that's the indication of a fair golf course."
Palmer said he is especially eager for this year's tournament, given that he missed the last few minutes of the 2012 edition when he had to leave the golf course before Woods sank the winning putt because of a health scare that led to his being hospitalized overnight. It was a precautionary measure after his blood pressure spiked a bit, but he was back behind his desk the following day and has been in good health.
"Well, naturally, I'm excited, and it was a disappointment to not be on hand for the finish last year. It's always a thrill, whoever the winner is, to be there to congratulate him. So I suppose I have a bit more anticipation for this year," Palmer said. "But, overall, my attitude isn't really much different than any other year. I think about this tournament all year, and it's something I always look forward to. It's important for the community, and it's important for the hospital and our other charities. It's a year-round thing that I'm pleased to say is doing quite well. That brings me a lot of satisfaction."