Arnold Palmer Invitational: Course InsightThe first Arnold Palmer Invitational since the passing of The King last September takes place this week at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, and it will undoubtedly evoke some very strong emotions.
An extensive collection of Palmer memorabilia will be on display throughout the Champions Course for all to see. A larger-than-life, 13-foot bronze statue of Arnie is now stationed between the first and 10th tees. Even Palmer’s golf cart and clubs will be positioned behind the 16th tee, his favorite place to watch the tournament.
Palmer transcended the game, and along the way won the hearts and minds of millions of people with his own swashbuckling, daring style of cool. It seems fitting that whoever hoists the hardware this Sunday will have to play with that same kind of Palmer fearlessness. Eleven of the past 12 winners here have won by only two strokes or less.
Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Hideki Matsuyama, and defending champion Jason Day headline one of the strongest fields in tournament history, including five of the top 10 players in the world, 22 of the top 35, and a host of major championship winners. The winner this year will receive $1.56 million and a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour, but don’t think for a moment it’s going to be easy.
Bay Hill is a go-for-broke, par-72, 7,419-yard layout with more than 150 acres of thick rough that can grow up to four inches tall. Fairway bunkers extend out far enough so that big hitters can’t bomb it off the tee with impunity. Greenside bunkers and run-off areas closely guard the small, firm greens, putting a nostalgic premium on short game strategy and finesse shots.
The closing stretch on holes 16 through 18 are set up to ensure momentum swings, train wrecks, and lead changes, much like the finish at TPC Sawgrass, and always provides the most exciting moments of the tournament.
GPS view of No.16 from the 18Birdies app
When players arrive at the 511-yard, par-5 16th, they’ll most certainly be thinking birdie or eagle. Almost 50 percent of all birdies and eagles last year came on the four par-5s, and No. 16 was the easiest hole on the course (surrendering 223 birdies and 22 eagles). It shouldn’t be considered a complete pushover however. Out-of-bounds on the left can punish wayward drives, and water protecting the front of the green will gobble up any mishits on approach. Even longer hitters who reach the green in two will have to find the right level for any chance at one-putting.
A treacherous 221-yard, par-3 17th is where fortunes can change in a hurry. Last year it was the third most difficult hole on the course, spitting out 75 bogeys or worse. A challenging shot from an elevated tee will have to avoid bunkers front, left, and long of the green, as well as water that wraps around the front and right side. The green itself is fairly narrow, but deep enough that club selection could vary by up to three clubs. Right side pin placements should be the toughest pins.
Lakeside view of No.18
Bay Hill’s par-4, 458-yard 18th played as the toughest hole on the course last year, doling out 108 bogeys or worse, and it might present players with the most intimidating approach shot they’ll face all year. A lake shields the entire front side of an extremely narrow green, while three deep bunkers protect the back. The fairway is also downward sloping, and hitting a high shot to hold the green from this type of lie is one of the most difficult shots to execute for even the best ball strikers. Tee shots should generally favor the left side of the fairway for the best angles on approach, however players who overcook it run the risk of out-of-bounds along the entire left side. Misses to the right will wind up in the most brutal rough on the course.
Players to Watch
Henrik Stenson has played extremely well at Bay Hill, earning a fifth-place finish in 2014, a second-place finish in 2015, and a third-place finish in 2016. He’s hitting fairways and greens-in-regulation this season at almost identical clips to those posted in his three top-5 finishes here, and based on that alone, I’d slot him for a top-10 finish. Stenson has struggled with the putter so far this year, and that’s probably what prevents him from picking up a win this week.
Hideki Matsuyama finished 6th at Bay Hill last year, but he’s finished outside the top-25 in three of the past four starts and missed one cut. Matsuyama is struggling a bit to regain the form that catapulted him to win five times in nine worldwide starts, so another finish outside the top-25 shouldn’t be surprising.
Rory McIlroy’s picked up two top-5 finishes and two top-10 finishes in his last four starts worldwide. Two weeks ago at WGC-Mexico, Rory showed no signs of rust after a long layoff, looking comfortable and confident. In his only two appearances at Bay Hill, he finished 11th in 2015, and 27th in 2016, but a comfortable and confident Rory is a dangerous Rory. It’s been 541 days since he was last World No. 1. Look for McIlroy to win this week and set the table for a return to the top next month at Augusta.