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Arnie wouldn’t have dwelled over lack of star power at Bay Hill. You shouldn’t, either.

March 13, 2017

If we’re not careful—all of us, Billy Payne and Sam Saunders and Jack Nicklaus, NBC and CBS and Golf Channel, you and me and Billy Horschel—this run of tournaments could get painfully maudlin. It’s not just the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill this week, the first one since Arnold’s death in September. It’s the whole run. The first Masters without Arnold in 62 years. Then the first Memorial tournament, the first U.S. Open, the first British Open, and on it goes.

Let’s keep our eye on the prize, people: Arnold Palmer ate and drank as he pleased, traveled the world on a jet he owned and piloted, played golf most every day, lived to be 87 and had a hell of a good time doing it. If Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth aren’t playing this week, and they’re not, it really doesn’t matter. (No Tiger, either. He could drop in to do some TV, though that’s not his kind of thing.) But Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson and Jim Herman are playing, and I can all but guarantee you the tournament will be a good one. It almost always is.

Come Sunday, some well-engineered golfer is going to keep his ball dry on a quintessential flat, Florida lake-happy resort course and win a blue Bay Hill blazer. Maybe it’ll be some kid who gets his first invitation to Augusta, as Arnold did in 1955. Onward.

Last Saturday at Bay Hill, a 13-foot statue of Arnold was unveiled, with 1,000 or more people on hand. The statue (from what I could glean on Golf Channel) is magnificent, and it captures the man and his muscular golf. As for Golf Channel, it was cofounded by Arnold, there’s a studio named for him and you can forgive the folks there for keeping his name in constant circulation. I’m guilty, in my own little broadcast booth, of doing the same. But now is a good time to resurrect Tom Watson’s comment after he lost that playoff to Stewart Cink at age 59 at the 2009 British Open at Turnberry: “This ain’t a funeral, you know.” Watson loved Arnold. Arnie, in many of his stories.

I once asked Payne, the Augusta National chairman, about Arnold, and he called him “a great man.” Payne’s entitled to his opinion, of course. I would say Lincoln was a great man. To me, Arnold was fun, charismatic, decent, sexist, exciting. I’d say he was a real man, with all that the term implies.

He might not be happy that Mickelson isn’t playing this week. If he could, he’d probably tell Phil, “I’m disappointed, but I understand. A guy can only play so many weeks.” Also, “I hope you win a U.S. Open someday, but at least you won at my place!” And, “That interview with Feherty was great. You know all that grow-the-game bulls—? That’s how you grow the game.” Finally, “Say hi to Augusta for me. I’m gonna miss it.”

You can be sure Arnold’s green coat will be on the 1st tee at Augusta come the morning of April 6, alongside Big Jack and the Black Knight (Nicklaus and Gary Player, young people). That’s appropriate. But with or without a display of that boxy club coat, which Arnold wore with such pride, the man’s legacy is secure.

Some of this whole remember-the-king thing is marketing, of course.

A small army is dedicated to the business of Arnold Palmer, to the continuing sales of cans of Arizona Arnold Palmer Half & Half and tee times at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge and cars from Arnold Palmer Motors in Latrobe, Pa. That’s not your problem or mine, but it is, part and parcel, a branch of the river we call the American Way. Names, and the reputations attached to them, sell. Bobby Jones’s heirs, Ernest Hemingway’s heirs, Henry Ford’s heirs all dealt with the same thing.

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We may buy the products or not. We’d be fools not to recognize that know, at least in part, that the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard is a branch of a marketing department. Different marketing departments, in fact, at different times, all according to whomever is paying the bills. For some years the event was known as the Bay Hill Invitational sponsored by Cooper Tires. Before that, it was the Nestle Invitational. At its start, before it moved to Bay Hill, it was the Florida Citrus Open Invitational. The name made no sense. (Are you an open or an invitational?) Still, we were reminded of the health benefits of starting the day with eight ounces of pure Florida orange juice. I wonder if Anita Bryant knew Arnold.

Of the top 25 golfers in the world—according to a ranking first designed by Mark McCormack, Arnold’s long-time agent—14 are playing Bay Hill this week (nine of the top 25 played last year). That prompted Horschel to type these words into his phone: “Disappointing. Totally understand schedule issues. But 1st year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn’t be in position we are today.”

All that is true, except for the fact that it really doesn’t matter. Even without those missing 11 players, the event will raise millions for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. NBC/Golf Channel will still have a show for us. Maybe the leader board will show Vijay Singh (54) or David Hronek (?) or Sam Saunders (designated grandson) or Tony Finau (best Tour player never to have teed it up in the Masters). Maybe some name-brand player will go through a sleeve of balls in 18 holes in a cold north wind, little white caps foaming on the Bay Hill lakes.

Somewhere, you know—from on high, as we’ve been conditioned to think of these things—Arnold will be watching closely, all pissed off. What he would give to be there. Anyway, he’d give a thumb’s up to those bright orange pants Horschel likes to wear.

Maybe Horschel will save them for Sunday. They’d go well with Arnold’s Bay Hill blazer, right? And what doesn’t go well with a check for $1.56 million? There’s a reason the Tour’s leading money winner gets something called the Arnold Palmer Award. As Chi Chi Rodriguez used to say, “Every touring pro should bow down and pray to Arnold Palmer, for what he did for golf.”