Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard ranks among the most special wins of past champions
A champion golfer will tell you that winning any tournament is memorable and rewarding, for many reasons, one of the most prominent being that victories are so difficult to attain. They also are likely to say that some mean more than others.
Players who have won the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard are inclined to agree that claiming victory at Palmer's robust Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida, ranks among the most special of their careers. It is not just the prestige the invitational event carries that makes this a coveted crown, but also the experience of receiving a trophy from the tournament's namesake, the Hall of Fame player known as "the King."
"I played the PGA Tour for 12 1/2 years before I broke through, and to have my first win at Arnold's event, and to have Arnold Palmer hand me the trophy, was about as meaningful as it can get for a first-time winner, or, I think, for anyone," said Loren Roberts, who won the 1994 and 1995 titles. "I was emotional about it, truly emotional. We all know what he's meant to the game. We all know what he stands for, and his tournament, by extension stands for the very best of the game of golf, plain and simple."
If anyone holds his victory at Bay Hill more dear than Roberts, it might be Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion and the captain of the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team. Azinger was a member of the Brevard Junior College golf team when he went to work as a summer counselor and instructor in 1979 at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. The eight weeks at Bay Hill literally altered his prospects as a golfer.
"I was on the C Team at Brevard at the time, and I had never broken 70 in my life up to that point. I just wasn't a very good player," Azinger recalled. "But living at Bay Hill, working with kids, playing the course every day, it really changed me. I went out and broke 70 later that summer, moved up to the A Team, then I got a scholarship to Florida State University, where I played for one year. Six years later I was the PGA Tour Player of the Year (in 1987). How about that?"
Yes, how about that?
But there's even more to the story. Azinger was heading out to the West Coast in early 1988, and a magazine story drew his ire; the gist of the piece was to question whether or not the Florida native was a fluke. He arrived at Bay Hill with the question still dogging him, even though he had posted five top-25 finishes in his first seven starts. He quieted the doubters with a five-stroke victory over Tom Kite.
"That was a huge deal for me, just a gigantic win," Azinger said. "I kind of got that monkey off my back. The fact that I used to work there, and then to win, was really a neat thing. And then to have Arnold standing there with me ... that was the topper to it all. So, yeah, it was a very big deal."
Others who conquered Bay Hill would agree. Andrew Magee, the 1991 champion, has said that only the major championships carry more cachet than the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Paul Goydos considers his 1996 triumph "as good as a major." Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who captured the 1993 title, said Palmer's tournament ranks among the finest in golf simply because of its host. Chad Campbell lists among his career highlights the 2005 edition, when he not only captured his second PGA Tour trophy, but also had the honor of playing with Palmer in the first two rounds of what was the King's final appearance as a competitor.
"When you win a tournament that has the name of Arnold Palmer on it, obviously, it's going to be special. It means a lot," says Ernie Els, the 1998 champion. "I've been very fortunate. I've won tournaments hosted by Arnold, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus and you feel those have a little bit more to them.
"You also have to look at the golf course; that is one tough place," Els added with a grin. "You're never going to scrape it around there and expect to do well. It asks a lot of your game there. It keeps you on your toes, and at the end of the week, if you're the winner, you know you've earned it."
One of Kenny Perry's 10 victories since turning 40 came at the 2005 Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he admits it took some of his best golf to register his two-stroke victory over Vijay Singh and Graeme McDowell.
"Bay Hill is a tactician kind of golf course," said Perry, who won the FBR Open in February. "You really have to navigate around all the problems, and you have to hit it good and be smart at the same time. Normally the rough is very tough and the greens are firm. The year I won, I hit more fairways than anybody else. I drove it great, and that's what you have to do because that sets up everything else.
"That was a special week," Perry added. "I played so well, and when you get in that position in an event that means something to you ... you try not to think about it. You start to think about what it means to win Arnold Palmer's tournament and you could mess up real quickly. And then to have him standing out there with that big sword ... getting the trophy from him, that was magical stuff."
The 31st Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard is scheduled for March 23-29, the final stop on the PGA Tour's Florida Swing. Tiger Woods is the defending champion of the premier invitational event that features 120 of the game's best players from around the world.
For tickets or for more information, log on to the tournament web site, www.arnoldpalmerinvitational.com or call the Bay Hill ticket office at 407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Tournament proceeds benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.