Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Classic Kicks Off Unofficial Start to Year in Golf

AP Photo
The Associated Press

BAY HILL, Fla.—The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without its immortal host commenced on Thursday with large crowds out in force celebrating The King.

Multicolored umbrellas, his longtime logo, were ubiquitous on the grounds as fans cheered on Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders who played in the featured group with Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker. Saunders came within inches of the ultimate tribute as his four iron on the par-three, 17th hole hit the flagstick and bounced away. The ball easily could have fallen in for a hole-in-one. It wasn’t to be for Saunders but he represented well with a two-over 74 coming with the spotlight on him.

Argentine Emiliano Grillo and Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick both fired five-under par 67 to share the early lead. Lucas Glover, Paul Casey, and Charlie Hoffman are each one shot back at four under.

The golf seemed secondary as it was a day for tributes to Palmer. The Golf Channel, which was co-founded by Palmer, showed some great footage of Palmer, the best being Arnold’s last appearance as a competitor at Bay Hill. With his 16-year-old grandson Saunders as his caddy, Palmer hit a driver off the deck on 18 and had it skid up the fairway and onto the green stopping just 15 feet shy of the pin. Palmer gave his grandson a playful slap as he laughed uproariously over his luck and skill.

Bay Hill can be considered the real start of the golf season. The tournament has some real cache and starts the stretch to the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, on April 6. Expectations are high for an incredible golf year with so many good young players hitting their stride. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Tiger isn’t coming back and golf fans are ready to move on without him. It will not be one player to fill the void he leaves, rather a contingent of talented and likeable players such as Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson.

A few burning questions (and answers) as the 2017 year in golf gets rolling:

Will Jordan Spieth get over his meltdown at the Masters? With a five-stroke lead to start the back nine, he went bogey on 10, bogey on 11, then infamously put two balls in the water on the 12th hole for a quadruple bogey. It was one of the most shocking things ever seen at Augusta, mostly because Spieth has always looked immune to pressure. His third shot from the drop area (a chunk that barely flew 40 yards and plunked into the creek) could possibly be the worst shot ever hit under major pressure. What made it all the more fascinating was that it was Jordan F’n Spieth, the calm, steely Texan who gagged it away. It was the lock of the year that he would take that five-stroke lead and waltz home to his second consecutive Masters victory but golf has a funny way of intervening with fate. To answer the question—will Spieth get over the meltdown? The answer: absolutely, he’s Jordan F’n Spieth. He owns Augusta and with his short game wizardry and being the best putter on the planet, he will be right back on top of the leader board this year. Flukes happen and his meltdown on 12 was one of the flukiest thing ever to happen in golf history.

Can Phil Mickelson win that elusive U.S. Open? If you caught Phil’s interview with David Feherty, you’d know the man does not lack for confidence. Nor should he. What a career. Five major championships, Ryder Cup stalwart, mentor to all up and coming players. It’s an incredible resume. One thing is missing though and that’s a U.S. Open championship. It would mean a lot for a man synonymous with American golf. He’s been close before. His double bogey on 18 at Winged Foot in 2006 was an epic blunder that handed the title to Geoff Ogilvie. Can he do it? Nope—too many good young players out there now and his erratic driver will cost him in high U.S. Open rough. His best chance at a sixth major is back at Augusta where his short game can put him over the top. Even without the U.S. Open, it’s a hell of a career. Sam Snead never won one. Arnold Palmer never won a PGA. Byron Nelson never won a British Open. That’s good company.

Rory McIlroy is in a minor major drought. You have to go back to Valhalla at the 2014 PGA for Rory’s last major. Does he get one this year? Without a doubt. The PGA Championship is being played at Quail Hollow, a course he dominates. He shot a course record 61 and won the Wells Fargo Championship at the North Carolina course. That broke his own prior course record of 62. Rory says the course sets up perfectly for him so you can put this major in the bag.

Can Jason day get over his ailments and stay atop the world rankings? It’s always something with this guy. Vertigo, injuries to his back, thumb, and ankle. He can’t seem to stay healthy. Is it because he swings so hard? Henrik Stenson has warned young players and specifically Day that their violent swings can lead to injuries especially when they get older. I don’t see Day staying on top much longer. Too many good players nipping at his heels and the injuries have become a distraction. I think he wins one more major which will give him two for his career. Not bad all things considered.

Will Dustin Johnson ever make an honest woman out of Gretzky’s daughter? They’re having their second kid and still no nuptials. How does he get away with that, asks a nation of gelded husbands…my guess is he eventually caves. Take your time Dustin. You, ah, wouldn’t want to rush into anything.

Stay tuned as Breitbart will have onsite coverage through the week at Bay Hill.