Sam Saunders said golfers are in for a treat in this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. The Championship Course here at Bay Hill Club & Lodge is in excellent condition for the 42nd edition of this elite tournament that is among the most prestigious in golf.
“The course is in phenomenal shape. It's as good as I've seen it,” said World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who heads a field that includes five of the top 10 players in the world and 20 of the top 25 players in the PGA TOUR’s FedExCup standings.
A treat indeed. But golfers are also in for a real test of their skills. With windy conditions on tap for today’s opening round, the lush Championship Course layout is likely to yield good scores only to those among the 121 players in the field who have command of their golf balls and their level of patience. The purse is $9.3 million, with $1,674,000 going to Sunday’s champion. They’ll have earned it.
“It is certainly a challenge out there,” said Australia’s Marc Leishman, one of this year’s tournament ambassadors and the winner here in 2017. “It's such a good golf course. I think it tests every part of your game. I was actually asked the question before, which part it tests the most. And not very often do you say the iron game. Normally you have to hit the fairway or you have to putt unbelievably well, but here you have to hit your irons in the right spot, particularly with how firm and fast the greens get on the weekend.
“It’s as good a test as you'll get,” he added. “It's fair. There's going to be some low scores, which is great. If you're playing good golf you can shoot a low score. But if you're a little bit off it can look like you're a lot off, which I think is a sign of a really good golf course.”
The Championship Course – 7,454 yards, par-72 – has yielded some mighty fine scores over the years, including McIlroy’s 64 in 2018 and the final-round 64 defending champion Francesco Molinari of Italy fired last year in overcoming a five-stroke deficit.
McIlroy, the reigning FedExCup champion and PGA TOUR Player of the Year, can point to his performance two years ago as igniting his run to retaking the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“Yeah, I sort of feel like this was the start of sort of like a two-year journey to get back to this point,” the native of Northern Ireland said on Wednesday. “I came here two years ago off the back of a missed cut in Tampa and sort of a little lost with my game, especially a little lost with my putting, and spent an afternoon with Brad Faxon and then came up here and, obviously, something stuck with me from that afternoon and was able to win and that was my first win in 500-whatever days. So, I feel like this place is a lot of special memories to me. It was definitely the catalyst to sort of do what I've done over the past two years.”
McIlroy would have to be considered among the favorites in a field that includes Molinari, plus World No. 3 Brooks Koepka, the 2018 PGA TOUR Player of the Year, No. 7 Adam Scott and No. 9 Patrick Reed. Scott and Reed have posted victories in recent weeks.
Saunders, Arnold Palmer’s grandson and a former club champion here at Bay Hill, said he is gratified that the tournament remains well supported by the top players.
“I think guys want to come be a part of this,” Saunders said. “I also think the bottom line is we have just got one of the best golf courses on the PGA TOUR. Guys want to play at the best places. They want to play at the courses where it's challenging but fair.”
And, of course, they want to play in a tournament that celebrates the legacy of a legend that, as Saunders pointed out, paved the way for today’s players.
“The legacy of my grandfather, it just doesn't go away,” Saunders said. “He's not here to shake hands with the players and see them, but the impact, they feel it. They know how important this event is.”