Yesterday saw the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, a bit of a mouthful for a golf tournament that began life more simply as the Florida Citrus Open (what a glorious name!) at the Rio Pinar Golf Club in Orlando. The inaugural staging, in 1966, was won by Lionel Hebert. Among the players in a three-way tie for second was Jack Nicklaus, who later that year would win the Open Championship at Muirfield to complete a personal grand slam – winning all four major championships.
His win in Scotland would take Jack’s major haul to six. By that point, Arnie had won all the seven he would win. Nicklaus eventually got to 18 but in terms of public affection no one has ever matched Palmer, now 86, who over the years has made what later became known as the Bay Hill Classic – after the Orlando course over which it is now played – his personal tournament.
By a quirk of the calendar, the dates of that first event 50 years ago were the same as this year: March 17-20. Arnold himself won it in 1971 (slightly bizarrely, Nicklaus never did). Tiger Woods won it four years in a row from 2000, when he was in his absolute pomp, and then again in 2008/9 and 2012/3. Eight of them since the turn of the century: extraordinary.
This year Matt Every was going for a hat-trick of his own but he was upstaged by Australia’s Jason Day, the reigning USPGA champion, who became the fourth man to win the tournament after leading at the end of every (pun intended) round. But his Sunday got off to a shaky start, with three bogeys in the first six holes – not what one expects or normally gets from the world No. 3. Eventually, he clinched the title by getting up and down from behind the 18th green to beat Kevin Chappell by a stroke. With the win, Day leapt over Rory McIlroy to become the world No. 2.
The No. 1, of course, is Jordan Spieth, who won the first two majors of last season and only missed out on a playoff for the Open by one shot. Day also suffered that fate at St Andrews. The previous month he had finished five shots adrift of Spieth at the US Open, but his effort was remarkable given that he collapsed with an attack of vertigo towards the end of his second round and he was intermittently assailed by the problem over the weekend. When he finally won his first major at Whistling Straits last August, there was nobody in golf who didn’t believe he’d paid his dues.
At this moment, Day is indeed part of the modern-day ‘Big 3’. The original trio with that collective sobriquet were Messrs Palmer, Nicklaus and (Gary) Player. They won 34 majors between them. The tyros currently stand at a cumulative seven, the same number as Arnold’s career tally. But they have time on their side, unlike the great man. Who knows for how long he will feel well enough to be in attendance at his tournament? For sure, things won’t be the same once he is no longer around.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen