Bay Hill has strongest field since death of Arnold Palmer

ORLANDO, Fla. — So much for the notion the Arnold Palmer Invitational wouldn’t be as attractive when its namesake was no longer around.

Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott and a host of other top players at Bay Hill this week give the tournament its strongest field since Palmer died in September 2016.

The condition of the course is good as ever. Florida in March has warmth in the air and the increasing buzz that the Masters is right around the corner.

And it’s still Arnie’s place.

“The legacy of my grandfather, it just doesn’t go away,” Sam Saunders said Wednesday. “And 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.”

Tiger Woods chose not to play as he picks his tournaments more sparingly because of a fused lower spine. He has played Bay Hill just once — a tie for fifth in 2018 — since winning for the eighth time in 2013.

Even so, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is more than holding its own against a schedule that features two World Golf Championships and The Players Championship in the weeks leading to Augusta National.

“It’s very, very hard to pick and choose right now because this is such a strong part of the year,” Graeme McDowell said.

McDowell regrets going to a World Golf Championship in Mexico City, mainly because he didn’t get much out of the high altitude with his low ball flight.

There was a time when players never would have considered skipping a World Golf Championship with its big purse ($10.5 million) and small field with no cut. Now it’s getting harder to distinguish.

Bay Hill has a $9.3 million purse, a 120-man field (with a cut) and strong world ranking points. Ditto for the Genesis Invitational at Riviera last month, which has the same elevated status with a big purse, smaller field and ranking points that are among the highest for regular tour events.

The other tournament in that elevated category, the Memorial, has been among the strongest for years.

It’s a question whether they have become stronger with the added perks, or if the World Golf Championships are not revered as much as they were when they began in 1999. It could be a little of both.

Scott said so much has changed in 20 years. The tour now has 10 tournaments outside the U.S. — the U.K., Canada, Japan, China, South Korea, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and two in Mexico. When the World Golf Championships began, the only events outside the U.S. on the PGA Tour schedule were two in Canada, the British Open and Spain.

“It was much harder to get the world’s top players together,” Scott said. “Most of the world’s top players play on the PGA Tour as a PGA Tour member now.”

In 1999, the World Golf Championships, the Tour Championship and The Players Championship had the largest purses at $5 million. The largest purse for a regular PGA Tour event was $3 million.

Bay Hill, Memorial and Riviera now have $9.3 million purses, a little more than $1 million less than the WGCs and about $2 million to $3 million less than the majors. The Players Championship has gone up to $15 million this year.

“They were significantly more money,” Scott said of the WGCs. “Now everything is a lot of money.”

So many tournaments. So much more money. So many options.

Koepka skipped the WGC in Mexico City and is playing five straight events, including the Valspar Championship. Dustin Johnson was in Mexico and has taken two weeks off before going to The Players, Valspar and the Match Play. Justin Thomas has skipped the last two weeks and will play the next three. Jon Rahm played four in a row through Mexico and then took two weeks off.

Rory McIlroy, who first reached No. 1 in the world by winning the Honda Classic in 2012, missed last week. He plans to play five of the next six through the Masters, missing only the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook.

Bay Hill is personal for McIlroy on many levels.

Palmer finally persuaded him to come in 2015, and they had lunch and grew close. He’ll always have that memory. And then two years ago, McIlroy ended his longest drought by closing with a 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

He was No. 13 in the world when he arrived. He returns this week at No. 1 thanks to a two-year stretch of winning five times in his last 47 events worldwide, with 64% of his finishes in the top 10.

“I feel like this place is a lot of special memories to me,” McIlroy said. “It was definitely the catalyst to do what I’ve done over the past two years and ascend back to the top of the world rankings.”

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