The Arnold Palmer Invitational did right by its namesake
Perhaps the most enduring symbol of the western part of Pennsylvania will be the red cardigan. Two of its most famous people, not to mention two human beings beyond compare, famously wore that garment.
Fred Rogers and Arnold Palmer may not be around anymore, but they’ll never be gone. Places they touched will simply never let that happen, and for Arnie that includes Orlando and Bay Hill.
I bring this up because, in Palmer’s honor, the winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational will also be awarded a red cardigan. The first went to Marc Leishman of Australia, who carded a final round 69 to hold off a crowded leaderboard with a tournament total of -11. Americans Charley Hoffman and Kevin Kisner finished -10, and Rory McIlroy was among those at -9.
The difference on Sunday was Leishman’s eagle on the par 5 16th, capped off with a long putt that energized the crowd and put the Australian in front for good. Even then, he still had to finish strong or risk a playoff, with other players right behind him.
Bay Hill, one of the gems of the Florida Swing every year, really stood out this time around. The course was accessible enough to the field that the leaders got into the negative double digits by the end, but by Sunday nearly half the field was over par and that’s not counting those who missed the cut. Early in the season, challenging courses are often in short supply, as the field puts up eye-popping numbers week in and week out almost all the way to the Masters.
Of course, with the architect of the course looking down from wherever he may be now, there was no way Bay Hill was going to play too easy for the tour this time around. Want a friendly neighborhood? Wrong red cardigan.
Emiliano Grillo learned that the hard way on Saturday. Taking an aggressive line at the par 5 sixth hole, Grillo put his second shot in the water. After a drop, he took the same shot over the water, with about the same result. With two balls in the water, he added a club to the mix.
Water hazards in general took on a new meaning this week, as we were all reminded of the most famous danger of golf in the great state of Florida: Alligators. Well, they’re a danger to most golfers anyway. Cody Gribble shooed one away with his hand like it was harmless. Smylie Kaufman was not so seasoned, however, and became one of the highlights of the weekend when he nearly walked into one before he realized it and reacted accordingly.
Both golfers missed the cut.
Leishman’s win was keyed by a 66 on Friday and consistent play for the other three days. Of the top five golfers in the field this week, Leishman was the only one without a round over par. In fact, the two strokes Rory McIlroy lost to par on Thursday wound up being the difference between tying for fourth and forcing a playoff for Rory.
He now moves to eighth on the year’s earnings list, at this point in the season largely filled with the kind of golfers who do not skip early season events. He’s missed one cut out of eight tournaments he’s played this year, and this win constitutes his second top ten finish. That’s a pretty big improvement over where he was last year at this time: One top ten finish, two missed cuts, no wins. The 33 year-old golfer won’t be confused with Dustin Johnson, but he’s currently 11th for putting average so far this season. Somebody consistent with the flat stick, it goes almost without saying, is the type of person who can win a tournament here and there. Combine that with being 31st in Drive Total, and it’s little wonder that Leishman won this weekend.
For Rory’s part, he has played three PGA tournaments this season. In all three, he has finished in the top ten. McIlroy is once again playing like one of the best golfers in the world, and as the biggest name in the field he put on a show. A three-putt on 18 was part of the difference, as was Thursday’s slower start. Still, finishing in a tie for fourth when he’s played a lighter schedule is a lot more than nothing.
With the WGC Match Play event next week, a lot of the tour’s most notable players opted not to come to the Arnold Palmer this time around. Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, and Jason Day all played Bay Hill, but many of the other big names stayed away. Yet it speaks to how special this entire field is that without many of those big names, there was still a great show put on by the PGA. McIlroy did his part, as did Hoffman and Kisner, and especially Leishman in the victory.
Yet it wouldn’t have mattered if attendance was mandatory. It wouldn’t have mattered if Tiger Woods’ back magically healed and he returned to US Open at Torrey Pines Tiger, nobody in this field was going to be the star of the show, not this time, not this weekend, not at Bay Hill.
The star of the show was always going to be the tournament’s namesake, and his memory, and everything he meant and continues to mean to the game of golf. There might never be a more fitting tribute to Palmer than this weekend at Bay Hill, and the friendly cardigan that reminds us of not one but two legends of western Pennsylvania.