By Ann Liguori
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He’s 85 years old and as sharp as can be. One of the most charismatic personalities in sports history, the legendary Arnold Palmer, is still going strong.
The King held court Wednesday morning at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, throwing in a few punchlines and zingers along with priceless wisdom.
When a reporter asked Arnold about a phone call he had with Tiger Woods this week in which Tiger told him he wasn’t going to play, and that the reporter heard that the discussion lasted for almost an hour, Palmer quickly replied, “Well, first of all, whoever told you it was an hour is full of s—.”
Laughter ensued and Palmer continued: “And what I had to say was very little. I didn’t say much of anything. Tiger did most of the talking. … And I can tell you there’s nothing confidential about it. He just, first of all, he said, ‘Arnold, you know, I can’t think of anything that I’d rather do than be there to play’ and then he explained that he didn’t feel like his game was ready. He really wanted to work on it and get it ready to play and I don’t blame him. I think if I were in his position I would probably have said somewhat similar things.”
Palmer turned 85 this past Sept. 10. He has been hosting the Arnold Palmer Invitational at his southwest Orlando home for the past 36 years. Previously known as the Bay Hill Invitational, the tournament name was changed in 2007 to honor the host.
“I started playing in the Citrus Open, which was at Rio Pinar (Country Club) in the ’50s and ’60s,” explained Palmer.
“We moved here. I thought we had a good chance of making this a really great tournament and, of course, we’ve been reasonably successful,” he said in his usual humble style, adding, “This was all orange groves when we started and the roads were two-lane roads and that was it. We were here before Disney … and you’ve seen what has happened since then.”
When asked how he handled the pressure of playing in a major championship, Palmer replied: “Stick to the fundamentals. My father taught me basic fundamentals of the game of golf. You want to stick to the things that you started with and you learned. (My dad) wasn’t too anxious for me to go on tour but when I walked out and I said, ‘I’m going on tour, pap,’ he said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you what, you go out there and listen to all those guys out there and that tractor is still sitting down there and you can drive it when you come back.’ … Well I never went back because I did what he told me. Basic fundamentals.”
Palmer’s 27-year-old grandson, Sam Saunders, tees off at 9:23 Thursday morning. A former club champion at Bay Hill, Saunders is a rookie on the PGA Tour and coming off a playoff loss two weeks ago in Puerto Rico.
Rory McIlroy, playing here for the first time, starts Thursday at 12:56 p.m. with Jason Day and Rickie Fowler. The top-ranked player in the world is joined by four others ranked in the top five: Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and Day.
Looking ahead to the Masters, April 9-12, Palmer plans on continuing the tradition of being one of the honorary starters on the Thursday of the tournament, hitting the first drive with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, despite dislocating his shoulder approximately two months ago.
Palmer, who exercises regularly, has had to take some time off from his workouts because of the injury he suffered this past December. On the evening he was to speak at the Father/Son Challenge, he slipped and fell on a carpet in his house and did a 360, landing on his shoulder.
“I haven’t exercised as much in the last eight weeks but I have every intention of starting again maybe even this week to keep in shape and you know, I’m getting, well, I’ll be old one of these days. … I’m 85,” he said. “I’m going to start hitting the ball this week or next week and I have every intention of hitting the first drive at Augusta.”
Truly timeless. Arnold Palmer. A Legend like none other.