Long live the King! This week has already been, and will continue to be, about Arnold Palmer. The first time the PGA Tour will descend upon Orlando and Bay Hill without the King, it will be an emotional week. Much has been done to assure that his legacy is felt by all who walk to the first tee, including a majestic statue of Palmer that can’t be missed. There will be a golf tournament this week, but the winner, no matter how spectacular, will not be the story. Paying tribute to Arnie is the goal. It will be achieved.
The Course – Bay Hill Club and Lodge is a somewhat polarizing course when it comes to PGA Tour professionals and followers. Now in its 39th year as the stop for this event, the course is known more for Palmer than its playability. Last week’s stop at Innisbrook offers the Florida course with the most character. PGA National offers the course with the most bite and test. Bay Hill may have more history, but the par 72 at over 7,400 yards is rather vanilla to watch after length was added and it evolved from a par 70 in 2010. The signature 18th hole, however, has routinely offered some of the best finishes in PGA Tour history.
Last Year – Jason Day went wire-to-wire, holding off Kevin Chappell with two average weekend rounds to reassert himself as the most dominant player in the game. He would go back-to-back at Match Play the following week to become the Number One ranked player in the world, a spot he would hold until Dustin Johnson took it from him earlier this season. It was the first time in 24 years that a player had the outright lead after day one and never gave it up en route to a handshake from Mr. Palmer. No player has won more since the start of the 2013-14 season than Day (nine wins).
The Field – As an invitational, only 120 players peg it this week. So much has been made about who isn’t there, as if skipping the tournament is offensive to the memory of Palmer. Hogwash. The field is the second strongest regular Tour stop of the year so far (Genesis Open was slightly stronger) and the most top-heavy of any Florida stop. Four of the top five in the world, more than half of the top 50, and 74 percent of the top 30 in FedEx Cup are all on hand to play and pay respect to Palmer.
Weather – After a chilly start to the week (wind chills near freezing on Wednesday) and possible frost on Thursday morning, the weather will warm to a delightful weekend. Temperatures in the low 60’s in round one will give way to more seasonable temps on the weekend. Ample sunshine will be present throughout, with friskier breezes forecast for Sunday. Pack the shades and sunscreen.
Holes to Watch – It is hard to ignore the power of 18, known for Robert Gamez’s miraculous hole out in 1990, or Tiger Woods’ clutchness in 2008 and 2009. The tournament often comes down to this hole, but don’t discount the opening three holes, either. Since 2003, the opening three holes at Bay Hill have been the toughest stretch on the PGA Tour to start a round, nearly a half stroke over par on average.
The King – Nobody really knows how many times Arnold Palmer won. The answer is 62 PGA Tour titles, by the way. What golf fans remember is the magnetic personality. Palmer was a working-class golfer, an approachable man who valued so many relationships. That personality made Palmer the first marketable golfer, and he set the standard for how all professional athletes could capitalize off their sporting success. The difficulty this week is figuring out how best to remember Mr. Palmer. His reach was in so many directions.
The Time is Now – With the WGC-Match Play next week in Austin, Texas, and the Masters just a couple of weeks after that, it is go time for the world’s best. Outside of Dustin Johnson’s two wins, 2017 has been filled with sub-30-year-old champions. The true test of that youth movement will be the majors. This week begins the run up to that first one. Will the kids stay hot, or will the veterans come to life?
Championship Pedigree – Pound and putt it. Jason Day winning last year made so much sense for a guy who is one of the longest on the planet and was a top 10 putter on the PGA Tour. While ballstriking is a normal measurement of success week to week, this tournament is often a putting contest. Four of the top six in strokes gained: putting last year finished in the top six, including Day. In fact, his aggressiveness may have been the key. He went for 15 of the 16 par 5’s during the week, more than any other player. Yes, Matt Every (an average distance player) won here back-to-back, but big hitters on a good putting streak are wise bets. Tiger Woods won here eight times for a reason.
Top Five –
Henrik Stenson – Stenson didn’t miss from inside 10 feet for 36 holes last week in Palm Harbor. He didn’t keep it up on the weekend, and his strategy to play it safe off the tee never allowed him to run down the leaders. He won’t be conservative this week. Making his home in Orlando, Stenson is 50-under in his last five appearances at Bay Hill, never finishing outside of the top 15, including three straight top five finishes.
Rory McIlroy – Only his third start at Bay Hill, with his best being a T11 two years ago. It’s not a sterling record, but his strong comeback in Mexico City two weeks ago showed a quick return to form. His length here makes him an ideal play.
Justin Rose – He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained: off the tee, and that combination of length and accuracy should play well this week. A runner up to Woods’ last win here in 2013, Rose has been poised for a win this season, so why not this week?
Tony Finau – He made a surprising charge at Valspar in the final round, on a course that isn’t ideally suited for his game. What made it incredible was that he hit every fairway. He said his game was as comfortable as ever. Ride that hot hand! And take that length at Bay Hill. The par 5’s will be assaulted by Finau.
Jason Day – There is no recent evidence to suggest a top five placement for Day, but there’s a reason why he won here a year ago (above). Perhaps there is rust after the long layoff and illness, but banking on his fire to get back to top-level form is enough to take a flier this week.
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – Finau is a strong play here, while Stenson is probably the safest play, just as he was a week ago. Expect a good week from Thomas Pieters, who gets an invite here. He’s long and has a top 10 strokes gained: putting tally thus far in a limited sample size.
Fantasy Tip – The numbers above tell much of the story. You want aggressiveness on the par 5’s, and hope you can combine that with somebody who works the putter. But, if you want to know who is the most aggressive on Tour, here is the top 10 on the PGA Tour in going for it in two on par 5’s, along with their collective score.