Tiger Woods was a skinny lad all of 15 years old when he first met “The King” a few days ahead of the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando.
It didn’t take long for the teenager to fall in love with the place and come to admire and build a friendship with Arnold Palmer.
Woods won the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur at Palmer’s Florida base – the first of three U.S. Junior Amateurs he won in succession, which he followed with three consecutive victories in the U.S. Amateur.
During his conquering of the amateur ranks – which included record-breaking dominance at Stanford University – Woods played with Palmer in practice rounds at the Masters and started to get to know “The King.”
After Woods turned pro in 1996, he moved to the Orlando area and began making frequent visits to Bay Hill. Later, both of Woods’ children were born in the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando.
And Woods won the first of a record eight titles in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2000, each punctuated with a hearty handshake and empathic pats on the back from the man 47 years his senior.
“Seeing him after I won always was a great moment,” Woods said. “He meant everything to the game and he meant a great deal to me. He raised so much money for charity. He touched so many people.
“I always loved seeing him and playing Bay Hill. So many great memories.”
Woods, 43, will look to add to his memory cache when the 41st edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard begins Thursday. It will be Woods’ 19th appearance in the tournament – his 18th as a professional – and he’s always felt right at home at Bay Hill.
Check out the track record. Four consecutive victories from 2000-03. Two more consecutive victories in 2008-09. Two more in succession in 2012-13.
On three occasions – in 2001, 2008 and 2009 – Woods made birdie on the 72nd hole to win by one. He beat Justin Rose by two in 2013. His other four victories were by at least four strokes, including an 11-shot waltz in 2003 when he battled food poisoning in the final round after eating bad pasta the night before.
Woods also finished in a tie for ninth in 1997. Last year, playing the tournament for the first time since 2013, he tied for fifth after getting within one shot of the lead in the final round before hitting his tee shot on the par-5 16th – the easiest hole on the golf course – out of bounds.
In 70 rounds on the course that now can stretch to 7,381 yards playing at a par of 72, Woods has failed to match or break par just 14 times – twice in 1994 when he missed the cut playing as an amateur.
His career average is 69.97. And he’s won $7.66 million at Bay Hill.
This week, if Woods were to win, he would become the first player in PGA Tour history to win a single Tour event nine times.
It won’t be easy, but Woods, ranked No. 12 in the world, is trending in the right direction, with ties for 20th in the Farmers Insurance Open, 15th at the Genesis Open, and 10th in his last start at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
And Arnie’s annual bash is loaded. While Woods is the headliner, the marquee is filled with the likes of defending champion Rory McIlroy, who made birdie on five of his last six holes to win last year to end an 18-month victory drought; reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed; reigning U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka; and reigning British Open winner Francesco Molinari.
World No. 2 Rose is in the field, as are Bryson DeChambeau, who finished second in 2018; 2016 champion Jason Day; and Rickie Fowler, who won the Waste Management Phoenix Open earlier this year.
As well, Phil Mickelson, who won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am earlier this year, is making his first appearance since 2013. He won at Bay Hill in 1997.