Smiles and tears expected at Bay Hill

For PGA Tour players, and golf fans all over the world, this week will feel like a surreal one. The venue will be familiar, the leaderboard will look relatively the same, and the golf shots are expected to be as exciting as ever. Yet, the atmosphere will be slightly different.

That's because this will be the first PGA Tour event at Bay Hill without the tournament namesake, Arnold Palmer.

There would be no Arnold Palmer Invitational without Palmer, who passed away last September. Not only did Palmer sponsor, host, and popularize the event, but he purchased Bay Hill in 1974. It was after Palmer’s upgrades to the grounds that the Tour began to take an interest in Bay Hill. The first Bay Hill Classic took place in 1979.

Saunders Playing with a Heavy Heart

The entire field of 120 players will be thinking about Arnold Palmer this week, but one player will be a little more emotional as the players tee off on Thursday.

Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, will be playing in his eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational. He has conditional status on Tour, so a big week is needed if he wants to earn FedEx Cup Points in an effort to regain his card. Not that his playing future is really on his mind this week.

It’s very personal.” Saunders told the PGA Tour when asked about what this week means to him. “It means a lot to me to make it a great event. I want it to be one of the strongest events on the PGA TOUR this year and for many, many years to come, and that is going to take an effort on everyone’s part without my grandfather being around in person. He left such a strong mark that even though he is not there now, his legacy and his aura will still be a part of this tournament forever.”

Saunders is used to being lumped in with his famous grandfather. Ever since he turned pro in 2009, he has been referred to as “Arnold Palmer’s grandson”. There was a time when he tried to forge his own path. After all, playing in the shadow of The King was not the easiest thing to do.

As he’s gotten older, however, Saunders understands how much of an honor it is.

The things that he did so well are what I’m trying to carry on now, and carry on the positive impact that he had on so many people.”

Saunders has six started on the PGA Tour this season, and has only made two cuts. He would be forgiven if he had a less than stellar event this week. Saunders, however, takes this tournament as a point of personal pride, and nothing short of playing well will be acceptable to him.

Horschel Wanted a Stronger Field

The Arnold Palmer Invitational used to always attract one of the strongest fields of the year. In recent years, however, the strength of the field has declined. This is thanks in part to its position on the schedule – sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events with an improved Valspar Championship the week before and The Masters right around the corner. Bay Hill can also thank the recent struggles of Tiger Woods, who has won this tournament eight times, on the lack of star power.

For Billy Horschel, however, these aren’t good enough excuses.

"Disappointing. Totally understand schedule issues. But 1st year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn't be in position we are today.” Horschel tweeted out on March 7th.

Horschel said what many fans are likely thinking. If ever there was a year for a strong field at one of the most recognizable golf courses on Tour, this would be it. What a storybook ending it would be if some of the best players on Tour were battling down the stretch on Sunday the year they honor The King.

In the end, however, the players have to do what is right for themselves and their scheduling. Palmer knew that as well as anyone. He would have been disappointed, sure, and he would have said so in his annual pre-tournament press conference, but he would have understood. After all, Palmer won The Masters four times, and would likely have done all he could have to win a fifth.