ORLANDO, Fla. — On a bright weekday afternoon, Arnold Palmer, flanked by television cameras, slowly shuffled from the driving range to the practice green at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Escorted by a single representative, Palmer moved deliberately not only because of his age, although, at 82, he could be forgiven if that was it, but also because of the deep lines of autograph-seekers he was attempting to satisfy. Palmer didn't tee it up on this day, pro-am day, and while his preference may be to keep his game out of the public eye, he's still a scratch player when it comes to being a golf ambassador and an American sports icon.
"Thank you, Mr. Palmer," said a happy middle-aged woman after getting Palmer's famous signature on a Masters flag.
"Really appreciate this, Mr. Palmer," said a forty-something man as Palmer signed a golf ball for the man's son, a school-aged boy who stood by wide-eyed and silent.
"When you first hear of golf, who do you think of? Jack and Arnie," Doug Bredewold, 54, told a reporter after getting Arnie's signature on his golf cap. "He's a gentleman."
So it goes in the life of a legend. Palmer has been this tournament's host since 1979 (he put his name on it in 2007), and things here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are going strong, as evidenced by MasterCard extending its title sponsorship for four more years, through 2016. It looks like Arnie's going to be dishing out signatures all over Bay Hill for quite some time, and the King has no problem with that. The event has helped build and continuously improve two of his big pet projects: the Arnold Palmer Hospital For Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital For Children & Babies. He puts a lot into all of this.
"I think the players realize that we are working hard to make this golf tournament one that will get everyone's eye and attention," Palmer said at his press conference this week. "And through the years, we will continue to do the things that we are doing to make the golf course better, and to make the players come here and enjoy this competition."
Palmer went on that day to take a little jab at Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, the world's first- and second-ranked players, calling the Euros' decision to skip his event this week "disappointing." It wasn't exactly incendiary stuff, but the comments created a few pre-tournament headlines and generated some buzz among the players — including Tiger Woods, who wandered over to his publicist, Glenn Greenspan, in the middle of his practice round and said with a smile, "I hear A.P. went off."
A.P. may not be pleased with who's not here, but the pros in the field this week — particularly Woods and Phil Mickelson, who have drawn the largest galleries to the surprise of no one — all but ensure that Palmer's tournament will not only be relevant, but also a premier early-season stop during the run-up to the Masters, which starts in two weeks.
"I think the ambassador that Arnold Palmer has been in the game is second to none," said Webb Simpson, who received a sponsor's exemption from Palmer early in his career and, like Palmer, attended Wake Forest.
"I want to give special thanks to Mr. Palmer," said Ryo Ishikawa, who received an exemption to play this week. "I met him [Tuesday], and this week I want to show Mr. Palmer I can play well, and maybe Sunday afternoon shake his hand again."
With the tournament underway, Palmer spent much of his time Thursday and Friday around the course, shaking hands, signing autographs, posing for photos and following his grandson, Sam Saunders, who was in the field on a (very) special exemption but missed the cut. On Friday, Palmer took the wheel of a golf cart and buzzed around with his wife, Kathleen. They watched Saunders grind along, and Palmer frequently parked outside the ropes to greet fans.
"It's very nice of him to stop and take the time to do that. He's the man, you know?" said Toby Rowell, a 67-year-old minister from Augusta, moments after Palmer dropped a signature onto his golf cap. "He's always had the demeanor about him as a man of the people. Tiger's not the man. Arnie's the highlight."
Woods, of course, is trying to shake off a recent Achilles injury and get himself locked in for Augusta. When he hit the autograph line between the range and the putting green a day after Palmer lit it up, Woods dished out a couple of signatures while continuing to press forward. Hey, no player is under more scrutiny this week, or most weeks, than Tiger. And so far Woods is playing well. This week at Bay Hill, he is certainly the star.
But when you ask around, only one guy out here is The Man.