ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer declared Bay Hill to be the best it has ever been in the 34-year history of the tournament. But he was disappointed not to have the best two players who are PGA Tour members.
Luke Donald, who returned to No. 1 in the world last week with his win at Innisbrook, isn't playing.
Neither is Rory McIlroy, the U.S. Open champion who was No. 1.
"I'm disappointed that they are not here, no question about it," Palmer said. "They are the top players on tour right now in the positions that they are in. And I'm disappointed."
McIlroy took off three weeks before the Masters last year, and it worked out well for him — at least for 63 holes. Donald has played Bay Hill only four times since his rookie season in 2002, and only once has he made the cut. Bay Hill is a course that tends to favor big hitters, and Donald is not considered one of them.
Palmer said McIlroy recently sent him a letter asking if they could meet — and telling him he would not be at Bay Hill.
"And of course, that made me feel great," Palmer said sarcastically.
Palmer even suggested that Europeans owed him one. It was Palmer who helped restore the prestige to the British Open when he went over in 1960 and talked up the modern notion of the Grand Slam (winning all four professional majors). Most Americans didn't travel to the Open in that era because of the high cost with little return. Palmer helped bring back the popularity.
"When I think back over the years, I went to the British Open to kind of enhance or to create additional interest in international golf," he said. "And to think that those people are now the top international players in the world, we like to have them here. We have a wonderful field and we are very proud of our field, but to have a couple of the top players internationally and U.S. not here, I'm kind of sorry for that."
He sounded as though he was willing to cut McIlroy some slack, and he said he was impressed with how the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland has handled himself in success and failure.
"I had a letter from him ... about coming up and having a talk with me," Palmer said. "I'm not sure that I know exactly what he wants me to tell him or what he wants to hear from me, but I look forward to seeing him and talking to him. And of course, as I said, I'm sorry that he isn't here. But he also mentioned in the letter that he will be here to play in the years to come."
MASTERCARD: The Arnold Palmer Invitational got off to a good start when MasterCard signed up for another four years as the presenting sponsor.
Bay Hill has not had a title sponsor since 1995, and the tournament was changed to Palmer's name in 2007. MasterCard has been the presenting sponsor since 2004.
Proceeds from the tournament benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. The hospitals announced this week they are expanding the hospital to create the largest neonatal intensive care unit in the country.
Chris McWilton, the company's president of U.S. markets, announced a potential benefit this week. MasterCard has endorsement deals with Ian Poulter, Brandt Snedeker, Camilo Villegas and Graeme McDowell. If any of them win this week, the company will contribute an additional $200,000 to the hospital.
AUGUSTA MEMORIES: Webb Simpson will be making his Masters debut in two weeks, which is not to say he hasn't been to Augusta National. He first played the venerable course when he was 12.
Simpson said the head pro at the country club where he grew up, Ted Kiegel, had been a teaching pro at Augusta National for 10 years. He arranged a trip to Augusta with Simpson and his father, along with an Augusta member.
"My eyes were wide open the whole day," Simpson said. "That was when the Scotty Cameron twirling putters came out, and I walked in the shop and asked my dad if I could get one. They were $350, and he said, 'No.' And to cheer me up, he said, 'If you break 76 today, I'll get you the putter.'
"So I was 8 over going into 18, so I'm obviously not going to do it," Simpson said. "He tells me if I birdie it, he'll give me the putter. So I hit driver, 3-wood to the Sunday pin, about 4 feet, and I miss. I was so upset. But he ended up getting the putter for me."
Simpson said he shot 80 as a 12-year-old. He returned to Augusta as a guest eight years later and knocked eight shots off his score with an even-par 72.
THE KING AND THE BELLY: Arnold Palmer has tried just about every golf club made, and it's not unusual for him to have more than the allotted 14 clubs — a lot more — in his bag during casual rounds at Bay Hill.
He even has tried the belly putter. But the King is not a fan of any club that anchors to the body.
"I suppose that if I were playing, and a long putter being totally legal and would help my game, I might use it," Palmer said. "But I'm opposed to it, personally. I just think that there shouldn't be a place in the game for anchoring a club against the body, which is what the long putter does. So, technically and principally, I am against it.
"But would I use it if it were going to enhance my game in the competition?" he added. "I might."