One of the PGA Tour’s most popular events, the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, began to hit full stride today on a warm, sunny Florida day. Almost all 120 participants arrived at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge to contend for the $6,300,000 ($1,134,000 to the winner) purse. Recently renovated greens and multi-hole tweakings of the 7,419-yard course have the layout in magnificent shape and will certainly test the field, led by 2014-15 consecutive winner Matt Every.

An Outstanding Field and Arnold Palmer’s Charities

2Keegan&2As usual, the field is outstanding. Participants include six of the top nine players—Adam Scott (1), Kevin Kisner (2) Brandt Snedeker (3), Kevin Na (7), Smylie Kaufman (8), and Graeme McDowell (9)—and 18 of the top 30 in the current FedEx Cup standings. In addition, five of the top eight—Rory McIlroy (2), Jason Day (3), Adam Scott (6), Henrik Stenson (7), and Jason Rose (8)—and 13 of the top 30 in the Official World Golf Rankings will be teeing it up.

For the second year, the winner of the API (along with the Memorial Tournament) will receive a three-year PGA Tour exemption, instead of the usual two-year exemption awarded at other Tour events. The API marks its 38th year at Bay Hill and continues to support Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation, which includes the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.

Keegan Bradley Is Getting His Game Together

3KeeganOn18Our favorite New England native son Keegan Bradley has been collecting a lot of Arnold Palmer Invitational fans in Orlando as well. Throughout Tuesday’s practice round, Keegan, from Woodstock, Vermont, went out of his way to sign autographs for young and old alike, speak with the patrons on the other side of the ropes, and pose for photographs with everybody who asked.

Keegan cuts an impressive figure on the fairways and greens, no question about it, but his common touch has been just as impressive to me. I followed Keegan for several holes today as he played with good friends Brendan Steele, a veteran of several API’s, and Jon Curran, a Hopkington (MA) High School teammate of Keegan’s playing in his first API.

Steven Hale, Keegan’s caddy, better known as “Pepsi,” told me that Keegan, the 2011 PGA Champion, really does enjoy meeting and talking with his fans, although demands upon his good nature can sometimes be overwhelming. On the 18th green, I asked Pepsi, with whom I had spent some time at Keegan’s Charity Golf Classic at Woodstock CC just before the Deutsche Bank, if he would help me arrange a picture of Keegan with Brendan and Jon for a New England Golf Monthly story. “No problem,” said Pepsi, as he pointed to Keegan. “Just ask him.”

“Of course, we will,” said Keegan when I re-introduced myself and my photographer-wife Vicky, “as long as both of you will be back to cover my charity event this summer.” Pepsi smiled knowingly, and I was very impressed that Keegan had remembered Vicky and me from that day last year.

This is the sixth API for Keegan, and, with the Masters only three weeks away, Keegan is searching for consistency in his scoring, hoping to shoot more 67’s as he did in the first round of last week’s Valspar and no more 79’s as he did in the second. Keegan is upbeat, however, and is feeling positive about the progress of his game. “I’m ready to play this week, and I always look forward to the Masters.”

Two-time Winner Matt Every Meets the Press

5MattEveryTuesday on the PGA TOUR is always a day for the pros to take it easy, spend a lot of time on the range and around the practice green, acclimate themselves to the course during the practice round, and enjoy the camaraderie of the day before the competition begins for real on Thursday.

Matt Every, consecutive defending champion in 2014-15, spoke to the media about his success here in the past and his current travails. First, he was asked, “What is it that you like about the API so much?”

Every said, “I really don’t know! Maybe the course dials me back a little more off the tee, more conservative, kind of forces my hand, can’t make an aggressive decision because it’s not really there. And then the support that I get here, from the locals and my family and friends, probably helps a little, too.”

The next question zeroed in on his WD’s, missed cuts, and very mediocre 2016. “Can you just explain what’s going on with your game?”

“I like to keep it colorful,” replied a smiling Every. “After I won last year, I went through this funk, kind of like blacking out over the ball. I hit these foul balls with my driver, and you just can’t compete out here when you’re reloading on the tee. And then that stuff builds up, and then it’s in your head, and it’s hard to forget them. But, I’m getting better.

“The problem comes from swing thoughts over the ball. Maybe one extra one that doesn’t need to be there—like a checklist and then you freeze over it and tense up. It’s hard to release the club when you’re doing that. So, I’m just trying to keep it simple over the ball. For me, I don’t think I need to be that technical. I think I just need to trust my swing, and that trust comes with repetition.”

Every was asked how he would feel about microphones on the players in the last two to three groups on Sunday. Another smile and he said, “If they [PGA TOUR] would agree to waive fines, I would be all right with it.”

Jason Day Evaluates His Chances for 2016

6DayOn9Another popular figure who always commands media attention is Jason Day, the 2016 PGA Champion. He spent a half hour with the golf journalists, answering their questions and explaining what 2016 might have in store for him.

“I really feel good about my game,” Day said. “The swing is coming along nicely. I think, if there’s one thing I’d like to improve upon over the next couple weeks, it is really from tee to green, to hit more fairways and hit more greens. Then, my putting has actually been pretty good for me.”

When he was asked about his first four starts this year, Day said, “They haven’t been the greatest. With the high expectations of everyone and, obviously, the high expectations of myself, thinking I should be coming out here and contending and competing even after a three-month layoff [to be with his wife and two children], my start hasn’t quite panned out the way I planned it. I was hitting it a lot better last year, but it’s only early on the season, and I’ve got two weeks in a row to get things going.”

Day was asked, “When you were world Number One after the BMW Championship, did you feel it difficult to deal with?”

“Oh, yeah, man, this is a really high pressure situation. I want to get back there with the hard work that I’m putting into my game, but I have to let you know. [Being Number One] is a different, different beast. I know I can’t please everyone. The only thing that I can do is please myself, and the only way I can please myself is to get the results, get my confidence, and start winning more tournaments.”

Day’s Big Four Mix and the Masters

4OpenChampsDay was asked how he fits into the mix with Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Rickie Fowler—2016’s potential Big Four. His answer was surprising.

“It’s a little different because, for me, I’m not as popular as those guys, and I understand that. I’m kind of a boring person whereas Rory and Rickie are very popular. They’re the popular kids in school. Jordan is getting that popular, and I’m just a nerd in the back. I’m totally fine with that. That’s just kind of my personality. I’m kind of a quiet person.”

With the Masters looming on the near horizon, Day was asked about his chances at the year’s first major. “I’ll go back to Augusta on the Thursday before the tournament, and in those four days play some rounds before the zoo comes in. That’s what I’ve done in the past, it’s worked for me, and I like doing the prep that way. The motivation to win has always been there. I still want to be the best. I want to get back to Number One, but these things take time. There are so many factors that go into playing well out here, but once I’ve found that blueprint or that little moment when everything clicks, I’ll start playing well again.”

(Photographs by Vicky MacKay)