ORLANDO — It’s a sign of the PGA Tour’s evolution that Tiger Woods isn’t even playing at Bay Hill this week but still earned more money than he has accumulated in 17 career starts at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, including eight wins.
His performances at the API were worth $7,656,559. On Wednesday, the Tour gifted him $8 million as the winner of the inaugural Player Impact Program, a hocus-pocus plan that bonuses those who most impact fan engagement, regardless of how they perform inside the ropes. Woods didn’t hit a single shot on the PGA Tour in 2021, but received prize money equivalent to winning a half-dozen tournaments.
It’s a little jarring that the free-money era in professional golf has been made official at Bay Hill, which usually represents a bulwark week on the PGA Tour schedule. It has always been a citadel of the old school values Palmer prized, not least of which was respect—for opponents, for peers, for fans, for cardigans and for protocol, like not wearing hats indoors.
More than five years after his death, Palmer iconography is everywhere at his eponymous event. Spectators still queue for photos by the statue that, while oversized, somehow still falls short of capturing his presence. On the far right side of the range, the familiar umbrella stands sentry above his name plate. That range also showcases the ever-changing nature of the Tour he helped build. Each year, the players get younger, longer, stronger. And enough time has passed since Palmer’s death that some of the guys atop his leaderboard never got to meet the legend.
Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell did. Will Zalatoris didn’t, but is no less reverential for that. “He’s our inspiration in our game. He was the gentleman of our sport. Everyone out here at this tournament this week feels his presence,” Zalatoris said before play got underway. “Every little thing of taking your hat off in the locker room or anywhere in the clubhouse, and I’m sure I’d be getting a nice scolding for this really sorry beard I’ve got on my face right now, which will be going away before we tee it up.”
Palmer isn’t the only absentee being spoken of fondly at Bay Hill. Woods is too. There are few venues with which he is more closely associated. Of his 82 PGA Tour wins, almost a tenth came here, the eight wins logged between 2000 and 2013. His barren run since owes more to absence than ability. He has competed in only one of the last nine APIs, registering a tie for 5th in 2018. No one playing this week begrudged Woods the $8 million as he rehabs from a car crash, knowing as they do just how much of the wealth he generated trickles down to them.
The same lack of begrudgery is not being extended to another man missing this week, one long marketed as embodying Palmer’s touch with fans. Phil Mickelson is a former API champion but often skipped the event. Whether he returns—here, or to the Tour at all—is the subject of intense speculation in the locker room.
Mickelson announced his retreat from the TourFebruary 22, part of a public statement addressing comments made public a week earlier in which he admitted he was overlooking atrocities by the Saudi Arabian government because their Super Golf League concept was providing him leverage to wring concessions from the PGA Tour that would further enrich him. On the range at Bay Hill, it is easier to find a player who has Googled schadenfreude than one willing to publicly sympathize with the embattled veteran.
“The public is finally realizing what we have always known,” said one multiple winner.
“Not a fan,” said a young star, the type who might once have been assumed to idolize a man of Mickelson’s stature.
Another veteran, one of the circuit’s more amiable guys, said Mickelson’s inner circle contacted several players asking them to reach out to their man with messages of support. Asked if he would be doing so, the veteran merely shook his head.
The enmity toward Mickelson is layered. Few are bothered by his breezy dismissal of Saudi human rights abuses, the Tour being largely a constituency for whom injustice means being denied relief from a bad lie. Even his muscling of Tour commissioner Jay Monahan doesn’t present an issue for many, since his response to the Saudi threat has been to put more money in their pockets. A few things have rankled, however.
The first is his alliance with the Saudis, described by one player as a “failed coup.” Players are alert to anyone trying to take food from their table, and Mickelson stands accused of trying to steal dinner and burn down the kitchen. Then there is his failure to mention the Tour in his apology, which cemented a perception that he is fully on board with a breakaway group. Lastly, is the man himself.
In golf, competitors speak of each other in complimentary terms even when they don’t mean it, which owes to the Tour’s tendency to privately fine those who speak ill of their peers in public. It’s safe to assume that HQ won’t be levying fines against McIlroy, Billy Horschel or Pat Perez, all of whom were pointed (“idiotic,” “ignorant”) in their criticisms of a fellow player in recent weeks. Even Zach Johnson denied Mickelson succor Monday when he was announced as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain for 2023. Three times Johnson was provided an opportunity to present Mickelson as a potential member of his backroom team, and three times he passed.
What speaks volumes in this mess is not the criticisms of Mickelson but the absence of those willing to circle the wagons around him. McIlroy offered softer comments Wednesday at Bay Hill. “We all make mistakes,” he said, which generously assumes Mickelson might think he made a mistake. That statement was a rarity at the tournament. Not a day or dinner passes without a new tale being passed of behavior that ranges from the unbecoming to the unconscionable, served with a side of rumors about what might yet emerge.
Players are keeping their counsel not because of what Mickelson said, but because of what might be revealed next, because they are weary of his “figjamminess,” because his personality has grated too often for too long. Wherever he is hunkered down, it must be sobering for Mickelson to realize that a 30-year career not only produced no allies for his breakaway plot, but no friends willing to rally around amid the fallout.