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A memorable week awaits the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando without The King

ORLANDO — A bottle of Musk Monsieur — the cologne that announced Arnold Palmer was near — is still on his desk at Bay Hill.

Next to it, a plastic cup holds pens Palmer used to sign autographs, too many to count. Even when his health kept him from hitting a ceremonial tee shot at the Masters, he would spend as many as three hours a day carefully putting golf's most famous (and legible) signature on whatever his army of fans sent him.

For the most part, everything is just as Palmer left it when he packed up from Bay Hill Club & Lodge last spring and headed home for the summer in Latrobe, Pa. Only this time, he didn't return.

This year's Arnold Palmer Invitational, the first since the beloved tournament host died in September at age 87, is sure to bring strong emotions for some, stories for all and reminders of the King at just about every turn.

"You always heard his laugh coming out of this office. You always smelled his cologne coming up these stairs," said Cori Britt, the vice president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises who handled so many of his corporate relationships. "Little things like that you miss on a day-to-day basis."

This will be Orlando's chance to say goodbye — the public and private funeral services in September were in Latrobe — though the buzz word for Bay Hill is "celebration."

The PGA Tour tournament commissioned a 13-foot bronze statue of Palmer — similar to the one at his alma mater, Wake Forest — which was to be unveiled for the tournament volunteers Saturday. It is positioned behind the first tee at Bay Hill.

Two stacks of plastic crates filled with trophies, medals and other items that had been in his Latrobe office will be placed around Bay Hill for spectators to see and remember.

An opening ceremony will be held Wednesday on the practice range for players to hit a ceremonial shot and sign the golf ball. And in perhaps the most touching reminder of his presence, Palmer's cart will be stationed behind the 16th tee — his favorite viewing spot — with two bags of clubs on the back, just like always.

"It's a reminder that he's still with us," tournament director Marci Baker said. "The players will be able to see that he's still there."

Still to be determined is how to handle the finish. For so many years, Palmer would head out to the 18th green to watch the conclusion, and a handshake from the King was as valuable as the prize money or the silver sword that goes to the winner.

Among the options are for the defending champion, the Palmer family or even this year's tournaments hosts to do the honor. Current and former pros Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen, Graeme McDowell and Annika Sorenstam, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge have been asked to serve as hosts.

"We'll be taking some of the Arnie's responsibilities for the week and representing him, which is impossible to do," said McDowell, who lives in the Orlando area. "How are you supposed to do that? It's impossible to fill those shoes. It's a massive void."

Tiger Woods, an eight-time winner of the tournament, will not play this year because he says his back needs more rest and treatment.

Some players, such as Robert Damron, have gone on Twitter to single out players who have not signed up for the Arnold Palmer Invitational this year, though early commitments have come from 14 of the top 25 in the world, including four of the top six.

Tournament organizers are more interested in who's playing rather than who won't come. They're more interested in the future.

"You play this year and then never play again? I have as much an issue with that," pro Paul Casey said. "I want to see a legacy."

Palmer once joked in 2013 that he would break Rory McIlroy's arm if he didn't play. McIlroy showed up two years later and was treated to a meal, and has been back ever since. It was particularly important to him last year because of Palmer's health.

"I played the last couple of years because I knew it might be the last time he would be there," McIlroy said. "Obviously, he's passed and you want it to be a great tournament, a great memory. But look, there's going to be guys who miss it for personal reasons and scheduling reasons, and that's understandable. … I just hope they're not vilified."

Bay Hill always will be linked to Palmer. It was in 1965, the year that Walt Disney announced he was buying 27,000 acres to build a theme park near Orlando, that Palmer played an exhibition at Bay Hill. He loved the club so much that he set out to buy it. Palmer took full ownership in 1975, and his tournament moved there in 1979.

The Bay Hill logo is a colorful umbrella, and it will be stitched into golf bags and even on some players' shirts. Among those playing is Sam Saunders, Palmer's grandson, who spoke so eloquently at his funeral two days after the Ryder Cup.

"It's going to be a very emotional week, but I think it should be a celebration," Saunders said. "There's still moments of sadness, and we obviously miss him. People come up and say, 'I'm sorry for your loss.' The truth is, we all lost somebody that meant a great deal to us and did a lot for all of us. It's not just me."

Everyone has a story.

Just about everyone has a letter from Palmer, who routinely wrote to players after a victory, no matter what tour he or she was on.

When he died, there was still a pile of items to sign. Palmer's staff returned the items with regrets, but the work is not done. Britt said some who had an item returned will get something in the mail signed by players at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, with a notation they are acting on Palmer's behalf.

Regardless of who plays, or even who wins, the focus likely will stay on one of golf's most important figures.

"For guys like me, who grew up in the Tiger Woods era, you feel the Tiger impact and you don't really feel the Arnie impact," McDowell said. "Arnie was probably more important in the modern game than Tiger. I mean, that's a big statement. Tiger transcended the sport. Arnold was the first golfing superstar, really, the first guy that did it all — beloved by the fans, became an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and just a loved superstar."

A memorable week awaits the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando without The King 03/11/17 [Last modified: Saturday, March 11, 2017 12:16am]
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