There’s an iconic figure missing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational this weekend.
He dominated the conversation on the course for much of the last decade. It was his domain, his playpen, and thousands flocked to see him at every turn along those 18 holes.
We will miss you, Tiger Woods.
Our community understandably mourns the loss of Arnold Palmer, a beloved icon who cobbled together two passionate pursuits — golf and providing medical care for women and babies — into a signature event in Central Florida.
The ride began in 1979 and continues this weekend, without Arnie. And without Tiger, too.
Palmer died in September but leaves memories scattered across his Bay Hill course, including trophies, medals and other items from his hometown of Latrobe, Pa. And there’s a statute, too, 13-feet tall with Arnie in all his splendid bronze glory, across the 10th tee at Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Tiger’s absence is less ceremonial and noticeable but every bit as impactful.
Woods owns the place in his own way, even though he was technically an Isleworth guy back in the day. Woods has a 50-percent victory percentage at Bay Hill, winning eight times in 16 starts.
Golf Channel documents his dominance more precisely: Woods has a streak of nine top-10 finishes, a streak of eight consecutive rounds under par and a scoring average of 69.73 and a blistering score to par of 121-under.
But in the wake of his fall, personally and professionally, Woods developed a bad back, which is like an NBA player losing his ups or an NFL running back with creaky knees. He hasn’t played here since 2013, and won’t be back this go-round either.
Now 41, Woods is broken down and battered, chasing his old form and glory as he rehabilitates from back-related injuries that have kept him inactive since early February, and for prolonged stretches, since 2014.
Tiger has played just 19 PGA Tour events since 2014. He is stuck on 79 PGA Tour wins and 14 majors, and the needle isn’t likely to move anytime soon, if ever. Tiger is missing in action, unless you catch him at the Barnes & Noble’s Union Square in New York City next week, hawking his new book, “The 1997 Masters: My Story.”
Final chapter looming.
But this isn’t a “he’s washed up” rip-job on El Tigre; it’s a heartfelt “attaboy” for all the memories.
“Clearly back then we didn’t realize how fortunate we were to have him,” said Scott Wellington, executive director of the Bay Hill tournament from 2005 to 2016.
“We felt like we had a tremendous advantage, not only with Mr. Palmer’s name on the event, but we had a past champion who was almost sure to come back every year. We kind of joked on the Tour that if he came to your tournament, he would affect your revenue 15 to 20 percent across the board. That’s how much of a difference he really made.”
Palmer and Woods will forever be intertwined, dating to the days Tiger played in the tournament in 1994 and missed the cut. He was an amateur then. When he came back three years later, he shot a 68 in his first round as a pro at Bay Hill.
Arnie and Tiger became a celebrity power couple through the years, a genuine brotherhood that broke down Tiger’s aloof persona. Arnie always had a friend in Arnie, and vice-versa.
“When they talked, it was a very meaningful and respectful dialogue,” Wellington said.
Sadly, we have reached radio silence. We are left with photographs and memories. Arnie’s Army marches on, with footprints on the fairways from the men who made this tournament special.
We will look at Arnie’s statue and salute, and leave the porch light on for Tiger.
ABOUT THE WRITER
George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
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