Story by: Gary Van Sickle
Photos by: Betsy Van Sickle

ORLANDO, Fla.—You can’t escape Arnold Palmer at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Not that you’d want to. The late legend was beloved by all who followed golf. No accolade-riddled sentence written here can ever be strong enough to encapsulate his career, his accomplishments and his generous life. His was a life well-lived, squared.

Sportswriting great Dan Jenkins once wrote that Arnold Palmer invented golf and while it was part hyperbolic humor, it was funny because it was kind of true. Modern golf is where it is because of Palmer, who launched the television era, and Tiger Woods, who was must-see TV. (Imagine if Palmer had been a child of the ‘90s and hitched up his pants, grimaced in his follow-through and tossed his red visor into the gallery as he won a bunch of Masters, U.S. Opens and British Opens in the Golf Channel/Social Media Era. He would’ve been even bigger, if that’s possible.

You’ll probably be shocked to be reminded that Palmer passed away nearly eight years ago—September, 2016. He was 87.

Pardon my French but… damn. Eight years? Life rushes past us in the express lane. Never forget that.

Last year, the API Invitational featured The Arnold Palmer Experience, an exhibit tent that was set up to allow spectators to walk through, see old photos of young Arnie, his clubs, some of his trophies—the works. It was a mini-Arnie museum. At the end, a small gift shop sold souvenirs, including his trademark cardigan sweater. I think they were $295 and if you wanted a red one, like the one handed to the API Invitational winner in a cool new tradition, you had to get there early.

There is no Experience tent this year. But I walked around Bay Hill on Wednesday to see how many times I would see Arnie reminders. The answer: A lot.

The API Invitational logo is everywhere, with the corporate MasterCard logo attached.

We’ve seen how quickly fame fades at other golf tournaments. The names of Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and even Byron Nelson don’t have quite the luster they once did.

It seems impossible that would ever happen to Arnold Palmer. But times usually wins out.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of Arnie moments waiting to be seen at Bay Hill this week.

So, his likeness is everywhere. None more striking than the statue of him near the first tee in his classic swing follow-through pose. I stood there for five minutes this morning and watched a steady stream of fans discover the statue, then rush over to pose for a picture. The statue is 13 feet tall. Like Arnie, larger than life.

A run through the merchandise shop and the Bay Hill golf shop is another drive down memory lane. A t-shirt caught my eye with a retro drawing of Arnie in mid-swing, wearing an orange sweater and blue slacks, with the message, “Greetings from Bay Hill.” It looks exactly like the touristy postcards we used to buy and send, oh, four or five decades ago. The shirt was $34.95 but I didn’t have a stamp for it…

Another shirt in red, white and blue had a drawing of Arnie from the chest up, in a red shirt, watching a shot, encircled by “Arnold Palmer Invitational.” Arnie remains the rare golfer who was cool at any age.

The t-shirt section offered a reminder that Arnie was an inventor, too. Inventor? Yeah, who else was clever enough to mix enough lemonade to give that blah-iced tea enough flavor to make it worth drinking? (You don’t have to look very hard online to find the best commercial of all-time, by the way, the ESPN promo featuring Palmer in the ESPN lunchroom, pouring lemonade into his iced tea while Scott Van Pelt and other ESPN types watch. “That was awesome!” was the punchline Van Pelt delivered perfectly.

Two t-shirts had iced tea drawings with Arnie’s name. It was only with great willpower that I didn’t snag a couple. That and the knowledge that a large MasterCard bill arrived in the mail at home two days ago and remains unpaid.

Red, yellow and green, the colors of Palmer’s iconic Bay Hill umbrella, were popular on the apparel. One garish hat had a bright green bill, a red band, then a wide yellow stripe, white strip and green strip with an API logo slapped inside a red circle patch. It looks as if it should only be worn by a croquet referee. Or something.

A better option, in my haberdashery opinion, was a plain black hat with an oversized umbrella logo on it, no other words. If you don’t recognize that red, yellow, white and green umbrella, well, then you don’t need to know what it represents.

The Bay Hill golf shop has even more gear. I was impressed with a large canvas print of the Arnie statue beneath a sky of pink and violet clouds. The 36-by-24-inch print was $350.

Two years ago, a limited edition putter-cover was sold here. It was red, like Arnie’ cardigan, with a v-neck shape that reveals a white golf shirt beneath it. I bought on but it’s almost too nice to use plus, it doesn’t quite fit on my snub-nosed Axis1 putter. Now there’s a second generation, same design, Arnie’s red cardigan, and it comes as a driver or fairway wood headcover for $50. My willpower weakened as I walked away. The problem? I’m here all week. Maybe those headcovers will sell out before I go back.

Other items of note included a small, framed black-and-white photo of a youngish Arnie lugging his golf bag by the handle as he exited his small propeller plane somewhere. He was a pilot of some accomplishment, you may remember, part of a record-setting flight around the world in 1976 when he made the trip in just over 57 hours and blew past Amelia Earhart in the Official World Aviator Rankings.

There was more Arnie stuff across Bay Hill Boulevard near the 18th green. Something called “Arnie’s Arnie Experience” was there. A tent was set up and a sign invited fans into an interactive exhibit in which they could attempt a putt with Mr. Palmer’s putter. It was sponsored by and Arnold Y Winnie Palmer. It was only Wednesday, pro-am day, and the putter opp wasn’t open for business yet. It’s a cool idea but I laughed about the part where I could use “Mr. Palmer’s putter.” As if he had only one. Perhaps no one in history used, tried and owned more putters than Arnie, who lost that part of his game in his late 30s and used more putters than Mrs. Fields had cookies.

Also there was Arnie’s Masters green three-wheel E-Z-Go cart with a green-and-white-striped awning. If you remember the ‘70s and the famous commercial Palmer did about Pennzoil and the tractor at Latrobe Country Club, the tractor was on display there, too. Photo opps, definitely.

For spectators who tour the whole course, a nice surprise awaits at a concession stand near the 18th tee. It is run by Charlie’s Bakery & Creamery of Orlando. They have sugar cookies with white frosting that has the API Invitational logo laser-printed on it. I don’t know how they do that and as far as I know, I’ve never eaten laser printing before but it was a tasty cookie. Any cookie with frosting is a winner. The asterisk is, they are $5.50 per cookie.

Charlie’s stand also had sorbet inspired by Arnie. It is ice-tea-and-lemon flavored, like Arnie’s favorite drink. It was also $5.50. I don’t care for iced tea so I didn’t try it but I spoke with another customer who did and she gave it two thumbs up.

I’m sure I missed a thing or two but the one spot that hits closest to home is on the end of the practice range where a large iconic Arnie umbrella stands, saving a spot in his memory.

Gary Van Sickle

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980, including 129 men’s major championships, 15 Ryder Cups and one sweet roundtrip flight on the late Concorde. His work has appeared in The Milwaukee Journal, Golf World magazine, Sports Illustrated and He is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America. His email gvansick at aol dot com.