Arnie Still 'The King' at Bay Hill

Even though some of the game's greatest players - including eight-time champion Tiger Woods - have competed in his tournament, the main attraction every year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational is its namesake.

This year will mark the 35th time the PGA Tour event has been played at Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge. The $6.2 million tournament begins Thursday, and the resort's owner and host, as usual, will be the focal point of the players and the fans.

And why shouldn't he be? In the late'1950s and early '60s, Palmer, with his dashing personality and slashing swing, was, with Jack Nicklaus, responsible for taking the PGA Tour from a small-time circuit to a major-league sport. Palmer was perfect for the dawn of the television era, and he helped shape the face of golf for future decades.

And he could play a little, too, winning seven major championships among his 62 PGA Tour titles. His fame wasn't restricted just to the U.S. either, as Palmer's popularity was as strong in Europe and elsewhere around the world than Stateside.

Adding to Palmer's legacy is expanding the game's reach over the years. Chief among them are his role as the designer - with architect-partner Ed Seay - of hundreds of golf courses, and as co-founder of Golf Channel. And don't forget a golfer's most popular drink, the "Arnold Palmer" (a mix of lemonade and sweet iced tea).

On Wednesday, Palmer's international influence was shown by comments from Australia's Adam Scott and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who are at Bay Hill this week.

"He gave me an invite to play here when I was 20 years old, I believe," said Scott, ranked No. 2 in the world. "And I walked off the first green and he was sitting in the cart behind the green greeting some of the players. And he came over to me and he said, Adam, it's great to have you here. And I couldn't even believe he knew who I was.

"But still his level of involvement in the game, and this was 10 years ago or more, to now, is incredible and he's in touch with it and he's relevant and he's been a great leader for professional golf."

Added McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, "It's tough to quantify kind of, for me, what kind of - Mr. Palmer's did for me when I was a young guy. He certainly is responsible for the modern game that we play. I'm very privileged to be making a living playing professional golf. He certainly has helped put the game on the map, raised the profile, raised the financials, the Golf Channel, what it's done for the game, just really growing the game, certainly in the professional ranks and obviously globally.

"Getting a chance to walk off 18 here in 2005 and shake his hand and for him to recognize me the following year when I came back. He's a very, very cool individual. He's certainly a legend in our game. I've been trying to make time on my schedule to get over here. Well, obviously to match our schedules up, because he's a very busy man himself and sip a couple of cocktails with him in the locker room in Bay Hill and pick the guy's brain, because he's such an amazing guy.

"And what he's done for our sport is very tough to measure. It's very large, his impact. He's a special guy. I'd certainly love to be hanging with him a little bit on 18th green late on Sunday afternoon. That would be nice."

Woods won't be able to go for his third straight win at Bay Hill, as the top-ranked player in golf had to withdraw earlier this week due to his continued back spasms.

"Called Arnold today to tell him that, sadly, I won't be able to play," a disappointed Woods said on his website. "Back spasms and the pain haven't subsided," added Woods, who was seeking his ninth victory at Bay Hill, which would have broken his and Sam Snead's shared all-time record of eight victories in the same tournament.

"I feel badly that I won't be able to play in this great tournament this week."

But Arnie, now 84, will be there, mingling with the crowd, talking to the announcers in the broadcast booth, and chatting with the players as he's done since 1979.

On the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, "The King" met with reporters and discussed the tournament, the field, Woods' absence and some nuggets from his vast storehouse of personal memories. Here's what he had to say.

MODERATOR: We'd like to welcome tournament host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Mr. Arnold Palmer. Thank you for joining us for a few minutes this morning. Once again, players are certainly raving about the condition of the golf course, and with that I'll turn it over to you for some general opening comments.

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course you know the golf course as the players are testifying to the fact that it's in great condition, maybe the best that it has been since we've had this tournament. Everything is pretty much right on schedule. The greens will be fast. They'll be running about 12, 13 on the Stimp, and they are in excellent condition throughout. The fairways are probably the biggest improvement in the golf course over 36 events, and they are excellent, also. So generally we are in good shape. The weather looks like it's going to be great. I'm pleased, of course, with a couple of exceptions as all of you know. I'm sorry about that, but there isn't anything we can do about it. And with that, just fire, whatever you want to ask me.

Q. Mr. Palmer, you own several golf courses. Do you have an opinion on whether or not the golf ball should be rolled back? We keep getting golf balls that are traveling farther and farther, and you almost need to buy another county in order to lengthen your course?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, there's no question about the fact that my opinion is that the golf ball needs to be slowed down. It's going too far. And these young people are getting stronger and stronger. And the equipment that they're building today enhances the ability to hit the golf ball far. And when you look at the yardage distance, if you study the statistics on the driving average for the pros on the Tour, it's well over 300 yards. And with all of that said, we need to really get into the investigation of slowing the ball down. Now, is that happening? Well, I happen to think that it is happening. USGA, the PGA and the Tour are all working with varies experiments and things to slow the ball down. How far they've gone, I can't answer that.

Q. Arnold, what do you think can or should be done about slow play?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, as you've seen lately, I have done some work with the USGA and with the PGA Tour and the PGA to make people more aware of the slow play that is causing tremendous inconvenience and continuing slow play. And we will continue - I will work as long as they ask me to to help enhance and to slow the time it takes to play a round of golf. Our courses, such as Bay Hill, Pebble Beach and other courses that we are involved in around the country, are doing everything we can, from having caddies that are going out with groups to encourage them to play a little bit faster is finish the rounds - everything we can do that is physically possible we're doing to encourage people to play a round of golf faster. We will have to do some more dramatic things to keep the play moving throughout the country and encourage the average golfer to play a little bit faster.

Q. A quick follow up, if you were on the Tour today and you were paired with one of the slower players in a round on the weekend, what, if anything, would you or could you do?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course there isn't much a player can do except to encourage his fellow player to continue to move faster. The Tour, the officials on the Tour, are constantly watching the pace of play and they are encouraged to keep play moving as much as humanly possible. That is a problem. That's the major problem that we're facing. And getting the message to the guys that are playing golf every day, the amateurs, the higher handicap players are people that we are encouraged to get the play moving faster.

It's a sensitive thing. A guy can say, well, you know, I'm destined to take a little more time to figure out a shot and to play that shot. And of course we, as officials or whatever, are encouraging them to keep the pace of play moving. And you can watch some of the players and see how fast they go. And you can watch other players who are slow and slow thinkers. And of course what are you going to tell a guy that's a slow thinker, hey, you've got to start thinking faster? (Laughter) That's pretty difficult.

Q. When you were in your prime playing career, what is your history of back problems? Did you have anything like that that laid you up for any length of time or did you avoid that for most of your career?


Q. Back problems?

ARNOLD PALMER: Back problems? Oh, yes, I've had - we called it a hip problem. But we've really - I've been through more physical exams and MRIs for back problems, if you wish. And even more recently in the last two weeks I've had checks on my back. And of course the doctors have seen things that they think they might be able to do something about. And I'm at this point about a month away from having an operation on my back to help me enjoy the game a little more. And I will do that after the Masters and see if I can't just get a little more comfortable playing the game myself.

Q. Did it happen often when you were in your prime playing career?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I had a very serious situation at the PGA at Dayton, Ohio, where I withdrew from the PGA because of a back problem. And at the time it was still diagnosed as a hip problem. It wasn't really ever a hip problem, it was always a back problem. We'd go through more checks and things. And that's why I'm finally going to go in and have them do some work and probably do a back operation.

Q. Mr. Palmer, I wanted to ask you about the competition the Palmer Cup, the collegiate events between U.S. and Europe, which started here at Bay Hill back in '97. I believe the event takes place up in England, Walton Heath this year, for the 18th edition. Just general comments about the events, Palmer Cup, and also how important is it for the youngsters to experience the match play competition, and also the historic golf course this event is being played, places a Prestwick, Cherry Hills, Portrush and others?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course we're very pleased with the Palmer Cup and are doing a very heavy participation in the Palmer Cup. And we will continue to work with the various schools and the institutions and the clubs around the world to encourage the Palmer Cup. It has become No.1 priority in our list of things to do and we're very pleased with the acceptance that we have gotten. I think we're now into something like - I think we're committed up to 2020 for golf courses to be played on. And the competition is wonderful. The style and the young people that are participating are all potential pros. A great many of them that started out on the Palmer Cup are now on the Tour. And we would expect that to continue.

Q. Arnold, going back to the days of you and Jack and all the way up to now with Tiger and Phil, the Tour has had a succession of great players, who have stood as the face of the game. Who do you see now as the up and coming stars who might merge in that role?

ARNOLD PALMER: I have a sheet here and I was just looking at some of the people to answer your question that I can see so many of these people that are going to be, if they're not already stars on the Tour. I played down at Seminole the other day with - let me tell you who it is - I'll tell you in a second -

Q. Was it Patrick Reed?

ARNOLD PALMER: Chris Kirk was one of them. Yes, he is an outstanding young player. And I think he will be coming on. John Senden is another one. Ryan Moore are guys that are - their potential is unbelievable. I can't tell you how high I am on watching these people and seeing how they are hitting the ball. Mechanic gushing is another one. Who else am I thinking of? I won't say Tiger Woods (laughter). Harris English is one very outstanding young player and looking very well. Chris Kirk, did I mention him? He is very good. Robert Garrigus and so on. I don't know how many you want me to name. But really the strength and the ability of these people is very pleasing to me.

Q. What did Tiger say to you when he called and what's your understanding of how bad his back condition is?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course he didn't tell me how bad his back is. I don't think he knows how bad his back is. I think he's listening to the doctors. And he mentioned that they're saying that he needs to give it a bit of a rest and see if he can work it out. He was very nice. And I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play. And I appreciate that and the fact that he called and just - I think he wanted to play golf this week. He just feels that over strange and I think that he needs to take, whether it's this week, next week or the following week, to get ready for Augusta. Certainly if I were in that position I'd be doing much the same. And I appreciate the fact that he did call and he made every effort to play.

Q. Arnold, Tiger's now 38 years old -

ARNOLD PALMER: Old? (Laughter).

Q. And his goal, of course, is to catch Jack Nicklaus with 18 Majors. In your opinion is he going to do so and secondly, how much does his injury history affect his quest to accomplish that?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I think - I don't think 38 years is the ultimate stopping point for his quest to do what Jack did. I think it lessens the possibility of that happening. It's going to be tough. It's going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of the game that is necessary to win majors. And the fact that these young guys are tough. And they're strong. And if they continue to play as well as they've been playing it's going to be tough for anybody, including anybody else, whether it be Nicklaus or Tiger or whomever it would be to continue to win major championships. And we're talking about guys that are playing good and coming on. And the fear of a player being so good that they back off, I don't think that's the case anymore. I think that the players that are going to win and win Major championships have to be physically fit, mentally fit and they're going to continue to be tough to beat.

Q. A couple of questions about another course that's going to be played in a couple of weeks, here. First of all, on the loss of the Eisenhower tree, did you have any close encounters with that thing? Are you happy or sad to see it go?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby and I watched it grow up (laughter). And, yes, I had encounters with it. I won the Masters one year when I hit it right into the tree and hit a 4 iron from under the tree on to the 17th green. So it was a problem to everybody. And I played a lot of golf at Augusta with Ike. And of course he hated that tree.

But he was a soft-spoken guy and a president who was very enjoyable. And he didn't like the tree at all. A couple of times he told me, he said, Arnie, if I could hit that tree enough to bring it down, I'd do it ( laughter.) And that's in fun. But the tree was a hazard, no question about it. It was a hazard to the professionals playing and particularly in recent years. In the early years it wasn't so much. I used to just whip it right over the tree. I didn't think much about it in the earlier years. But now it's gone. What are they going to do? I have no idea. No one has called and said, Arnie, what do you think we should do?

But I did do one tree similar to that that worked out very well, just as a bit of information. And that was the tree at the 18th at Pebble Beach. And I was key in that replacement of that tree. We'd moved a tree from the first hole all the way around the bend from No.1 across 2, 3, right back up to the 18th and planted it. And you can see what that tree is doing. It's doing extremely well. And I think it will be there for a lot of years yet. If they wanted to look at it, they could do that. They could probably put another tree in there. I certainly think that Augusta has done more astounding things than just moving a tree. I'll be interested to hear and see what they are going to say about it when I get there.

Q. Along those same lines, is there a - do you have a favorite place at Augusta National or is there a landmark or a place on the course that you consider, just from an aesthetic standpoint, your favorite place on that track?

ARNOLD PALMER: You mean as far as playing holes?

Q. Just a place that you'd like to visit when you're there?


Q. Just what pleases your eye most about that place?

ARNOLD PALMER: Oh, well, I just love the whole place. I think the things, the trees that are up around the clubhouse and the oak there are wonderful sights and a great place to be. And I guess I just like Augusta. I like the drive down Magnolia Lane. The thing I probably love the most is driving out with the championship trophy under my arm (laughter).

Q. You're such a huge advocate for the youth and continuing to keep the game going. You talked about playing with some of the younger players a couple of weeks ago. What advice do you give some of these younger players from not teetering over that line of having the confidence that a lot of them do have, that self confidence, but still keeping the respect for the game and the people that have come before them?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course, I think our guys are doing pretty well. The young people are keeping pretty much in line. I think that if I were to recommend something it would be the manners and the game, itself, the gentlemen that play the game and how they play it, it is very important that we keep the code of ethics intact. And players should, I think, practice manners and all the things that make the game a gentleman's game. And they should practice that and continue to remember that they are gentlemen and they're playing a gentleman's game. And certainly the fact that sometimes they avoid doing the things that we feel they should be doing to enhance the game.

Q. Since Bobby Jones it always appears that golf has been a star driven sport, beginning with Mr. Jones, then Mr. Hogan, Mr. Snead, then you, then a couple of guys, Mr. Nicklaus, Mr. Norman that followed you. Does golf need a superstar or is it better off with having 30 guys who can win anytime?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I think all of what you just said is very positive. But I think that the galleries and the people who are observing the game and watching the game on television and through the newspapers or the media are interested in having an individual or a set of individuals who are targets for good golf, whether it be a Nicklaus or a Tiger Woods or whomever it might be, that they're shooting at, it's exciting. It's like are they going to forget the Yankees in baseball? Every time you think of something, the Yankees is one of the big teams that is a pretty consistent winner, like Nicklaus or Tiger Woods or whomever it might have been. Byron Nelson was one of the - that creates an interest this the game and a target for are the players coming along.

And I think that having a guy that everybody is shooting at is not bad. It's not a bad thing to have a good player who looks at the scoreboard and sees his name up there every week, week in and week out. I kind of think that is a good thing. And I would not object to it if there was a star like Tiger or Jack or whomever it might have been in the years gone by, Hogan, Nelson, Snead, those are the names that come to your mind and my mind when I'm talking about players. And the same thing is true of the public. When they're thinking of players they think of Walter Hagen. Boy, he's long gone, and he was one of the great players of all time. And still a target for whatever we might think about as a great player.

Q. Does it surprise you the number of players who lift weights? Did you lift weights, yourself, and if not, where did your strength come from?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I won't say I didn't lift weights. I suppose that from time to time I did lift some. But when I was a young man lifting weights wasn't as popular as it's becoming now. I pushed a lawn mower, and it didn't have a motor on it. And that was one way to get pretty doggone strong. Or I drove a tractor that was so tough to drive I had to stand up to turn the wheels. Well, that's like lifting weights.

Any kind of physical exercise that builds muscle or builds your body so that you become more versatile in hitting a golf ball is important. And these guys today, yeah, they've got a lot more ways of doing that. The PGA Tour provides them exercise trailers that travel with the Tour. So they're able to continue to exercise, lift weights, do all the things that build strength and versatility into their body movements. And that's what we're seeing today. These guys are strong. And they're becoming stronger. And the young people who are coming into the game are learning from them that being strong is an asset to continuing to play good golf.

Q. Through great play and through television yourself, Mr. Nicklaus and Tiger really elevated the game globally. If Tiger's back is an issue where he has to reduce his schedule tremendously, how will that affect the popularity of the game in your opinion?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, it will have some affect, there's no question about that. He has been a very popular player because of his record and because of the performances that he has put on through the recent years. Will it affect the game? Probably to some degree. But there will be someone else. There will be someone that will come along that will be a good player, great player, and will get attention. And I think that's good. I think it's important that we have those people come along. And as I said, I've been watching some of these young people that I was mentioning and trying to come up with, and they're strong. They hit the golf ball a long way. And they're young. They're 23, 24 years old. Well, I didn't start playing the Tour until I was 25 years old. So you think about it, the fact that I was strong because of the physical activities that I worked into playing golf with, and it helped me and it will help these guys, except that they are much younger. They've got the same thing but they're starting at 20 years old and 21, 22, 23 years old is no exception today.

Q. These 23, 24 year old players you are talking about who are winning, do they strike you as anymore cocky than the players were in your day?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I suppose that I have been surprised recently with some of the comments that the young players say. As my father taught me, and he drove home that point, was he said, just remember something, he said, you don't need to tell anybody how good you are. You show them how good you are. And he drove that home with me. So I learned early not to brag about how good I was or what I could do but let my game take that away and show them that I could play well enough to play. And I tried to do that rather than talking about it, show them. Win and win as much as you can. And I think Nicklaus has done that. Tiger has done that. I never heard Jack Nicklaus say I'm a great player or Tiger Woods, as a matter of fact. They just get out and do it. And I think that that's far more appealing and a great more satisfaction from that than talking about how good you are.

Q. What is it like for you when people order an Arnold Palmer in front of Arnold Palmer?

ARNOLD PALMER: Thank you very much (laughter). Well, of course, I'm a little embarrassed. I'm happy they're ordering it, but I don't think about it as something, I just think that maybe I've created something that is fun. And it was fun for me. I have one or two every day and particularly when it's hot and it cools me down. So I'm pleased, obviously. Like the guy says, I'll have a Palmer, I don't think about it in first person. I think about, hey, thank you, have a couple (laughter).

Q. Talking to Jack a couple of weeks ago he talked about the fact that after his 1980 season his interest level waned considerably and he really didn't show up at the golf tournaments with the thought that he was necessarily going to win them anymore. I wonder when you thought that your interest level in golf as a professional started to wane?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, of course for as long as I played, I entered a tournament with the thought of playing and winning. But I have to say that after a few years of winning consistently, it isn't as driving or for me it wasn't as driving. I played a little less. And when you start playing a little less that kind of gets to the point of, well, how important is it to win and to be out there playing? And I never entered a golf tournament in my life that I didn't have the personal thought that I could win that tournament. And when that happened, it happened probably in the '70s or '80s that because I went in to play in the Senior Tour and I felt like for many, many years that I could win a tournament if I really went into it with the thought of winning it and that's the way I played it. I can understand what Jack said and I can say that there was a time when I felt much the same.

Q. You've led an incredibly well rounded life and you've meant so much to so many families outside of the sport with health and wellness. At what point did you make that a focus, health and wellness? And in what ways do you encourage younger players to do the same, to go beyond the game to make a difference?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I'm seeing a lot of that right now and I'm seeing and hearing from the players about health and physical wellness and that is very pleasing to me. I see them working hard to stay physical, to keeping their physical attractiveness as a part of their life. And checking with their doctors and with people that can enhance their physical ability to perform. And I think it's wonderful. I see that happening and I am very pleased. And just the fact that we have these trailers that are following the Tour that, in itself, is something that enhances the ability of these people and the ability to play better and to stay in physical condition.

Q. The Olympics in 2016 taking place in Brazil, it's been announced that it's going to be a 72 hole individual stroke play. In 2020 when the game - Olympic Games takes place in Tokyo, would you like to see a team format? And also the second question would be, out of the six World Cups, used to be called that Canada Cup, that you won in the '60s and all over the world, the one in Tokyo, the one in Buenos Aires, in France, so forth, any good memories from that those experiences?

ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I think of course, I think the individual as well as the team is important. I played a lot of years in the Canada Cup and in that sort of competition. And at the time I thought wouldn't it be great that this would be an Olympic contest. So I think that individual as well as team competition will enhance the Olympics and give the players an incentive to continue to play.

MODERATOR: Mr. Palmer, as always, we appreciate your time.


The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.