The Arnold Palmer Invitational Officially Begins | Grandson Sam Saunders Opens Tournament

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    The Arnold Palmer Invitational Officially Begins

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    Grandson Sam Saunders Fires Shot
    Heard Round the World

    Sam Saunders hits the ceremonial first shot and is followed by pro after pro after pro.

    Sam Saunders officially opened The Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard on Wednesday morning at 11:30 when he hit the ceremonial first drive. The grandson of The King launched his ball on the practice range in front of hundreds of emotional spectators—players, special guests, fans, volunteers, media—who had just watched a moving tribute on the range’s teletron to the most influential man in the history of the game.

    After Saunders’ opening salvo from the far right-hand side of the range was in the air, about 30 pros who had lined up beside him all the way to the far left-hand side drove one ball in sequence after another. When the final pro hit his drive, another 30 players stepped up to the formation and a second barrage exploded, one after another, until the 60-drive salute ended to great applause.

    All the pros in the lineup, including Keegan Bradley, John Daly, Jason Day, Jim Herman, Charley Hoffman, Billy Horschel, Geoff Ogilvy, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Ollie Schniederjans, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, to name a few were clapping their hands as well. These pros who participated were not yet playing in the ongoing Pro-Am, outside of defending champion Jason Day who was on the course but didn’t want to miss the tribute to Arnie.

    Let the game begin!

    Prior to his welcoming everyone to the API and hitting the opening shot, Sam Saunders had conducted the annual press conference in the Media Center. Once the domain of Arnie, who had conducted it for 37 straight years before his failing health prevented him from appearing last year, Sam assumed the Master of Ceremony role as he and six others discussed the legacy and legend of The King and the future of the API.

    His guests included Orlando resident and Tournament Host Annika Sorenstam, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, API tournament director Marci Doyle, Senior VP of MasterCard Michael Robichaud, CEO of Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation Kevin Bingham, and CEO and chairman of Arnold Palmer Enterprises Alistair Johnston. Each participant offered special insight into what the API and Arnold Palmer have meant to them and Orlando.

    The Old Order Changeth, Yielding Place to the New

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    A moment from the moving tribute to Arnold shows Deacon Palmer and his son.

    Sam Saunders: The Arnold Palmer Invitational is so near and dear to my family, and I have to thank my mother, Amy Saunders, who has been working so hard to make all of this come together. It’s going to be a special week for our family, and this week everyone feels like family. I know my grandfather is proud of the remarks, the tributes, the dedications that everyone is making on his behalf. It’s been a wonderful start to the week, and the week will only get better.

    I think my grandfather’s legacy speaks for itself. He made a mark on this game that will probably never be equaled, and the players are all here to pay tribute to that legacy. It is a selfless thing to come and play in this event this week, and the guys are really making an effort not to make this week about them. They’re here from their hearts. They’re playing because they know that my grandfather was able to give them a career to play golf for a living.

    This week the PGA TOUR has done something very special in giving the Arnold Palmer Invitational elevated status. And that’s something that, as a player, is pretty special. We have increased the purse this year from $6.3 million last year to $8.7 million dollars. That is unbelievable! And alongside that purse, a victory here carries a three-year exemption [instead of the usual two].

    The golf course is remarkable and will give us a true championship test of golf this week. It really feels like a Major championship.

    Annika Carries Arnie’s Torch

    Annika Sorenstam: We’re not here to fill the shoes of Mr. Palmer but more to carry the torch that he first lighted and that he has been carrying for a long time. I certainly burn in my desire to continue to grow the game among everybody, really. I’ve been very lucky and very fortunate to cross paths with Mr. Palmer throughout the years, and towards the end, it was more on a personal level.

    Of course, it was through the Arnold Palmer and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, where both our children were born and where we spent a lot of time. We feel like we’re very fortunate to have been able to get the care that our son Will needed, since he was born prematurely at 27 weeks. So, we’re very, very lucky and very fortunate, as you know, and a lot of the proceeds from this event goes to that particular charity. So it’s very close to our hearts.

    And it’s so wonderful to see that this week is more to celebrate what Mr. Palmer has done, and I know when you walk to the first tee and see the statue, a lot of memories will come to our minds, maybe a few tears, hopefully a lot of laughter, because I know that’s what he was all about.

    The Commish Pledges the TOUR’s Support

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    The API Wednesday kick-off news conference provides a stellar cast: Alistair Johnston, Michael Robichaud, Jay Monahan, Sam Saunders, Annika Sorenstam, Marci Doyle, and Kevin Bingham.

    Jay Monahan: Mr. Palmer is one of our patriarchs, and we love him. I’ve done an awful lot of reading, just like many of you, on Mr. Palmer and his life. There’s a quote that really has stuck with me. He said, “How I prefer to be thought of in terms of my legacy is as a caretaker of the game. A caretaker, just the way my father was before me.”

    As we sit here on the Wednesday of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, the foundation for the future of this event is incredibly solid. We’re very excited to take these programs and grow this legacy in the day, months, and years ahead, and the PGA TOUR as an organization is entirely committed to that. I think you heard me say that our goal for the year is to make Mr. Palmer proud, and we’re off to a great start.

    The Tournament Director’s Special Projects

    Marci Doyle: I greatly appreciate the input that Sam has provided—not only as a family member but also as a player. We have the benefit of having a player who can speak about our tournament and provide us with feedback, too. I think that makes us unique on the PGA TOUR

    Annika mentioned the statue, which was unveiled on Saturday at our volunteer appreciation. Tonight we’re going to light it in a ceremony with our friends at Mastercard. We’re very thankful to them because they did the underwriting of that statue, and we will have a special service with our Pro-Am guests and our friends at MasterCard.

    We’re going to have the umbrella logo [Arnold Palmer’s symbol] widely displayed. You guys may have seen them. We sent that logo out to all of the players and their agents and their clothing manufacturers as well as the caddies, for them to be able to pay tribute this week. So many of the players and their caddies will be wearing that umbrella, and we’re very appreciative of that.

    Mr. Palmer’s bag is going to be on the driving range all week, and there will be a spot just for him. As well, we’ll have Mr. Palmer’s golf cart on the 16th hole. That was always his spot where he would sit and watch the guys come through. It will overlook the 18th with the big scoreboard in the background.

    We have another special plan for the final hole. A red sweater will be presented to the champion, replacing the jacket that we have always presented before. The red sweater is something that Mr. Palmer made famous, so, again, this presentation will personalize the victory much more. The champion’s now going to be wearing a red alpaca cardigan, similar to Mr. Palmer’s.

    MasterCard Continues Its Sponsorship

    Michael Robichaud: We have had a phenomenal long-term partnership with the TOUR and the game of golf. We at MasterCard just value the principles and what golf means to all of us. It’s the best game out there, with its competition, its fun, and its integrity. We’re just really proud to have had this long-standing partnership and continue to grow it and evolve it.

    This partnership is not something that just sits still, and we think of ourselves in the role of the fans and what their experience is at events. At the core of our relationship with the API is what Mr. Palmer meant to many of us: he was a great player and he was a great competitor. So, at MasterCard we think of our support of the event and of our excitement to renew our partnership into the future, adding on to the years we have already been here.

    Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation Moves Forward

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    Rickie Fowler in the interview room sports the Arnold Palmer umbrella logo, the symbol of Arnie for decades.

    Kevin Bingham: Golf knew no better ambassador than Arnold Palmer. What he brought to the game and what he brought to philanthropy have been unsurpassed. In 2015, Mr. Palmer and the family decided to start a charity in the name of Arnold Palmer, and Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation was formed. Today the Arnold Palmer Invitational is now a function of Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation.

    It is something that we’re going to make sure continues to promote Arnold Palmer’s legacy moving forward. We’re celebrating a life well played by Arnold Palmer. And the focus of the foundation is to help children thrive, to help them become better citizens, and to help them through what we do with the hospitals. Other programs will be designed to teach children how to be more Palmeresque.

    Forming the modern day PGA TOUR

    Alistair Johnston: Arnold Palmer, above everything else and behind all the adulation, was a professional golfer. He understood the fact that the mind, the body, the spirit, and the energy of players have to be directed and have to be basically fulfilled by that individual in terms of where they play, when they play, and how they do it.

    Back in the 1960’s, he and Jack Nicklaus formed the modern day PGA TOUR. One of the reasons that they separated from the PGA of America and the club professionals was to provide the Tour players the opportunity to be masters of their own destiny. Arnold and Jack encouraged them to become independent contractors, which is the essence of the PGA TOUR today—that the players are entitled to establish their own schedules based on their own values and ambitions.

    The Kingdom Endures

    Once again the activities and the dialogue at the Arnold Palmer Invitational all seem to confirm the same concept: Long live the The King!

    (All photography by Vicky MacKay)

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