The Arnold Palmer Invitational has been a staple on the PGA Tour going back to 1966. Ever since Palmer became the host and moved the event to Bay Hill Club & Lodge in 1979, it’s routinely featured one of the strongest non-major fields of the year. Originally known as the Florida Citrus Open, the API is one of just five tournaments with invitational status. The top 70 players from the previous year’s money list are guaranteed invitations to this 120 player field. Gone are the scenes of The King cruising around the course in his personal golf cart since his passing almost 19 months ago. Even without their general, Arnie’s Army will be out in full force this week. Here are five things you need to know about the API as the Tour wraps up its Florida Swing.
Inside the Field
Eight past champions of the API, including defending champion Marc Leishman and 2016 champion Jason Day, lead an all-star cast at Bay Hill that includes five of the top-10 players in the OWGR and 12 of the top 25. Rickie Fowler returns this year not only to compete, but also to take over the traditional roles Palmer served throughout the week: greeting players and guests, hosting Pro-Am parties, and presenting the trophy to the winner. Hideki Matsuyama, tied for sixth two years ago, steps back into competition after being sidelined with a wrist injury. With less than a month until his latest bid to complete the career Grand Slam, Rory McIlroy hopes to bounce back after missing two cuts in five events this year. Other notables include major winners Justin Rose, Adam Scott, and Bubba Watson.
Something Supernatural going on for Tiger?
Tiger Woods hasn’t played Bay Hill since he claimed his eighth victory here five years ago, and he’s the favorite to win again this week. Incredibly, Woods is ranked 11th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Total, putting him ahead of Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy. Tiger has been in contention in two of his four starts this season, clearly loves this course (winning four of his last five starts here), and his resurgence shows no signs of slowing down. Possibly the most freakish thing about a potential Tiger win this week, however, is that if he does go on to win, it will have been 1,687 days since his last victory. That’s the exact same number of days between Phil Mickelson’s win two weeks ago at WGC-Mexico and his last win. Mind equals blown.
The King continues to Inspire
Arnie won’t be there on the 18th green to shake the new winner’s hand, but The King’s presence will be felt everywhere. Palmer’s office remains a shrine with everything still in place. Photos of Palmer are everywhere – with former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and even one with Gerald Ford where The King is looking for Ford’s lost ball. Other photos show a young Tiger Woods standing between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In another Arnie poses with Bobby Jones, cigarette holder in hand. A 13-foot bronze statue of Palmer near the 1st and 10th tees weighs 1,392 pounds, and depicts Arnie as he finishes his trademark powerful swing. People were attracted to Palmer because of the kind of person he was, because of the countless lives he touched, and that’s something that will never fade away.
Birdies and Blowups Galore
No. 18 at Bay Hill
Unlike the Copperhead course last week, Bay Hill plays more like a typical Florida track with wider fairways and fewer trees. The main defense on this 7,419 yard, par-72 layout are the 84 bunkers and seven water hazards spread throughout. With four par-5s and four par-3s all measuring over 200 yards, long hitters will have a relatively easy path to overpowering the course and picking up birdies. The par-5, 511-yard 16th hole historically ranks as one of the easiest holes on Tour, however, that’s balanced by more difficult holes like the par-5, 555-yard 6th hole which has produced a shocking 22 scores in the double-digits since 1983. Heading to the par-4, 458-yard closing 18th hole with the lead is anything but a guaranteed victory, and is the most difficult hole on the course – averaging .283 strokes over par last year.
Keys to Victory
With the greens at Bay Hill being extremely well protected, Strokes Gained: Approach will be a key skill. Thirty-seven percent of all approaches since 2006 have come from over 200 yards, putting a premium on solid long iron play. Combine that with the fact that over the same period of time winners have gotten up-and-down more than 66-percent of the time (compared to just 55-percent for the field), and it’s easy to see why Bogey Avoidance is also paramount to success. A scorching hot putter can always win from week-to-week, but because that’s so hard to predict, a more sensible approach will be to focus on players with an immaculate short game.
Bay Hill is a second shot golf, and if you don’t give yourself the opportunity to hit a mid-to-short iron into the green it’s going to be a long day. Rickie Fowler is a maestro with his long irons, and he sits in the top-30 in all the key metrics: Strokes Gained: Approach, Bogey Avoidance, Sand Save Percentage, and Birdie Average. Fowler’s missed two cuts in his past four starts and his putting has been uncharacteristically lackluster, but he’s far more comfortable rolling it on Florida’s Bermudagrass greens. Rickie’s also honoring Palmer with a new pair of Bay Hill umbrella kicks this week, and playing for something grander than the game itself is the kind of good karma Arnie would surely appreciate.