More than a half-dozen years after his death, Arnold Palmer’s legacy remains ubiquitous at Bay Hill, and not simply because this week’s PGA Tour stop bears his name. The tournament logo is rendered with his distinctive signature, its wide, looping “A” and “P” conferring an identity that characters cut from a Linotype machine couldn’t hope to emulate.
During his life, that signature was given so often as to become valueless beyond the sentimental memories of the recipient. Palmer’s autograph is too commonplace to be priceless, in the trademark phrasing of his event’s longtime sponsor, Mastercard. His umbrella logo is no less prevalent, appended to everything from apparel to keychains. It’s been more than 60 years since the King saw a woman open a colorful umbrella on a rainy day in Pennsylvania, giving him inspiration for what remains the calling card of a commercial powerhouse, unrivaled by any golfer before or since.
Just behind the first tee at Bay Hill is a bronze statue of Palmer. It’s 13 feet tall but feels life-sized. Fans flock to it for photos, much as they did to the man it depicts. Images of the lost legend are everywhere too, some from his avuncular later years, others from his prime, eyes twinkling at some long-forgotten mischief. The Bay Hill Lodge itself is as worn and comfortable as its late owner’s cardigans, still the centerpiece of the community he built and surrounded by streets like Masters Boulevard and Harbour Town Court, on which America’s national plague of McMansions has been mostly held at bay.
That’s the ubiquity of the branding that made Palmer iconic. The personal touch that made him beloved is elsewhere, specifically in the breezeway that both connects the car park to the putting green and separates the locker room from the restaurant. On a glass-fronted notice board of the type that announces scramble results and shirt sales at courses nationwide, there are enlarged letters via which he dispatched congratulations and encouragement over the years.
There’s one from May 5, 2010, tipping a cap to Rory McIlroy on his first PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow. “You are certainly living up to your promise,” he wrote, ending with a gentle nudge to consider playing at Bay Hill the following year. It wouldn’t be until 2015 that McIlroy obliged.
Kevin Kisner earned a note on his first Tour victory, too, dated Dec. 1, 2015, and the same not-so-subtle reminder about his schedule the following spring.
You can read the note sent to Tiger Woods a day after his win at the Tour Championship in 2007, which left him just one shy of Palmer’s tally of 62 titles. “You will be winning for a long time to come,” the graceful superstar wrote to his successor.
Nor were Palmer’s many missives limited to PGA Tour successes. Tom Watson received one on July 20 that same year after his Senior British Open triumph, two years before coming achingly close to winning the real thing again.
“You sure do play particularly well in the British Isles,” Arnie noted. Inbee Park received one in 2015. “Five victories in a season makes for quite a year,” he wrote, too modest to mention that he’d logged four straight seasons with at least six wins himself.
Had he been spared, Palmer would now be 93 years old. Would he still be penning those letters? Probably. But to whom?
Surely Chris Kirk would have received praise for what he overcame on the way to winning last week’s Honda Classic. So too the man he beat in a playoff, Eric Cole, a close childhood friend of Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders. Those whose prominence came since Palmer’s death in September 2016 would have felt his touch too. Jon Rahm. Collin Morikawa. Jin Young Ko.
But what about Charl Schwartzel? Would he have received congratulations on his win at LIV Golf’s inaugural tournament in London last summer? Some praise for maintaining focus amid distractions, like when his CEO, Greg Norman, dismissed the bonesaw murder of a Washington Post writer (on the orders of his boss) by saying, “We all make mistakes.”
Palmer loved to encourage young players. Would that have extended to Eugenio Chacarra after his LIV win in Bangkok? Had he read in Sports Illustrated how it was a smart play by Norman to lure talent with guaranteed riches right out of college, Palmer might have even expressed a wish that the same opportunities had existed when he turned professional late in ’54, but there just weren’t any bloodthirsty autocrats around then who needed stooges in the game.
How about a kind note to Brooks Koepka after his victory in Jeddah? Perhaps with parenthetical praise about how nice it was to see his playoff rival, Peter Uihlein, finally find relevance after a decade spent bouncing around tours. He liked Dustin Johnson, so would he have been moved to commend his captaincy of 4 Aces in the team’s win at Trump Doral last fall alongside Messrs. Reed, Perez and Gooch, themselves leaders among men?
Palmer was spared the dilemma of whether to write those letters, but in a way he had already registered his feelings. Back in 1994, when Norman tried to launch a breakaway circuit, Palmer publicly spoke against him at a players’ meeting, pointing out that the ‘Big Three’ — himself, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — had ample opportunities to strike out in lucrative new directions but opted against narrow self-interest. He was 65 then, and brought to bear his considerable reputation against a man whose character has been laid pitifully bare in the years since.
Arnie liked money. He made a lot of it and famously wasn’t too fond of spending it. But he didn’t much talk about it. None of the letters pinned in the Bay Hill breezeway mention how much the recipients made for their wins. Now, with a $20 million purse his eponymous tournament has become another weapon in the cash arms race disfiguring professional golf. That’s one respect in which his legacy hasn’t quite endured at Bay Hill.