Long before there was Tigermania, there was Arnie’s Army.
The “Army” gathers in mass this week at Bay Hill for the AP Invitational — the start of the PGA Tour’s two best back-to-back weeks on the 2023 schedule.
World No. 1 Jon Rahm, No. 2 (and defending champion) Scottie Scheffler and No. 3 Rory McIlroy will have “The Army’s” eyes upon them at the course Arnold Palmer built — Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
It’s a big-boy course where Arnold would regularly play in the Saturday morning games with members of the club. Arnie was, and always conducted himself like “just one of the guys.”
After Sunday’s finale, the Tour heads to its Flagship Event — The Players. The PGA Tour has no ownership in any of the major championships. The Masters is owned and run by the Augusta National Golf Club. The PGA Championship belongs to the PGA Of America. The USGA is the owner/host of the U.S. Open and the R&A in conjunction with the DP World Tour conduct The Open Championship.
So years ago, the PGA Tour made a subtle push for writers to declare The Players — The Fifth Major. It didn’t succeed. In the world of men’s golf, the four majors are the four majors — period. In women’s golf, water company Evian basically “bought” itself a major championship. Sad but true.
But we digress.
Back to Bay Hill where Scottie Scheffler’s magical run to The Masters continued at Bay Hill last year. That 2022 event looked like a U.S. Open as scoring conditions got really tough for the final 18 holes. Scheffler’s even par 72 got him to five-under par for the 72 holes and he beat Tyrrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland by a shot.
Gary Woodland and 2023 Honda Classic winner Chris Kirk tied at three-under. LIV Defectors Lucas Herbert and Talor Gooch were in at two-under while Sam Burns and Matt Fitzpatrick (one-under) were the only other players to finish under par. Just nine players in red figures.
This week should be a repeat of conditions. There’s been no rain to speak of in central Florida so the Tour can make the setup as tough as it wants.
Tough test for an elite field. Arnold would be happy.
Next week it’s off to northwest Florida and the crown jewel of the PGA Tour’s schedule. The Players makes it two straight Designated Events. With Bay Hill’s prize money at #20 million, the Players purse is even fatter with $25 million.
No doubt the Tour was a bit miffed that last year’s winner — Cameron Smith — is a LIV Defector. As a result, Justin Thomas, the 2021 winner, has been featured in all the promotional clips for The Players — Rory McIlroy as well.
The Stadium Course has proven its worth when it comes to drama down the stretch and will once again.
So with perfect weather on tap this week at Bay Hill, it’s time for the best back-to-back weeks on the PGA Tour.