Bay Hill Invitational – Pro-Am Though His Skills Have Slipped, Palmer
Still Reigns Supreme To His Legions Of Fans
March 19, 2003 | By Ryan Clark, Sentinel Staff Writer
Arnold Palmer looked almost giddy as he walked to the first tee with a throng of adoring fans. He’d take a step, then sign a fan’s hat. Move forward, and shake a hand. Another step, sign a photo. It was to be expected. After all, it was a day fit for a King.
When Palmer and Jack Nicklaus decided last week to play the Bay Hill Invitational, golf fans of the world rejoiced.
About 400 showed up to watch Palmer in Tuesday’s pro-am, and they saw his first drive sail straight and long down the fairway. “He’s still got it!” shouted Anthony Travis of Orlando. “Do you see? He’s still got it.”
Palmer made par on the first hole, a 441-yard par-4, by sinking a 12-foot put.
But then reality returned. The 73-year-old shot 14-over 86 and was more than disappointed with his performance.
“Whose course is this, anyway?” Palmer joked. “It’s hard.”
Palmer bought the course before the first tournament in 1979, and after a poor showing last year, said that he didn’t want to play in this tournament again. A couple of good rounds this year changed his mind.
“It’s true I didn’t play very well,” he said. “But the tournament had a good day, and the crowd was very nice. Honestly, I’m tired now, and my shoulder hurts.”
Nicklaus, playing the role in which he’s excelled for the past 40 years, followed in Palmer’s footsteps just two groups behind. When he matched Palmer’s par with one of his own on the first hole, he politely smiled as the crowd roared.
Nicklaus is playing Bay Hill for the first time since 1995, and he was the first golfer chosen by the amateurs in the event’s annual pro-am lottery. Tiger Woods and Palmer had both already committed to corporate sponsors, but the rest of the field was available.
The amateurs chose Nicklaus over notables such as Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els.
After shooting 1-over 73 on the day, Nicklaus said the course was longer than he remembered.
“But it didn’t matter,” he said. “The ball goes farther now, anyway. I really came here because Arnie wanted me to, and because I want to learn to play golf again. I’ve had hip replacement surgery, my
back was hurting, and I didn’t feel good. Now it feels good to be playing again.”
Nicklaus said his performance in the tournament will go far in determining if he will play in the Masters next month.
“I’m hitting less bad shots all the time,” he said. “I don’t think, realistically, I have a good chance to win a golf tournament. But I think that if I can play, I can finish in the top 10. Anything can happen.”
For all the talk about final standings, the pro-am really isn’t about serious golf, it’s about fans. It’s the day where regular hackers can mingle with the game’s elite, where a fan can get an autograph or pose for a picture with their idol.
And there were plenty of fans to go around. The galleries for Arnie and Jack were just as large as Tiger’s, with about 200 to 300 people following each golfer.
John Stuben of Boca Raton has a hobby of collecting autographs from athletes who have made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
His June 1, 1970, issue has both Palmer and Nicklaus on the cover, and Stuben already had a Palmer signature. Of course, he has Nicklaus autographs on nine of the Golden Bear’s 28 different SI covers. “I always heard Jack was a cold guy,” Stuben said. “But he’s really warm and friendly. And he has a great sense of humor. Arnie’s great, too.”
Maybe for one day, even the greatest golfer in the world can be a fan, too.
“I think it’s great that they are competing and playing,” Woods said. “I think it will be fun for the fans. . . . I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for all of us to see.”
At the end of Palmer’s round, he began the long walk up the 18th fairway, gently nodding and waving to the crowd.
Eight-year-old Lisa Hacker of Tampa positioned herself near the green, a bouquet of red roses in her arms. “Mr. Palmer!” she yelled. “Mr. Palmer!”
When he didn’t hear her calls, Lisa ducked under the rope and ran to him out on the fairway. She gave him the flowers and a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ve been coming to the tournament since I was 2,” Lisa said. “And he’s one of my top five favorite golfers.”
Long live the King — no matter his score.