Formerly the Bay Hill Invitational, the re-named Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard bears a special aura in professional golf. The tournament, one of the premiere-event jewels on the PGA Tour, annually attracts one of the strongest fields of the season to one of the circuit's finest courses with the entire production overseen and directed by one of the game's all-time greats - Arnold Palmer.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard has attained such high stature during more than two decades at Bay Hill in Central Florida's booming Orlando area is attributable primarily to Palmer and the tremendous respect that he has among his peers in tournament golf.
The Florida Citrus Open embellished the winter schedule of the Tour when it was staged for the first time in 1966 at Orlando's Rio Pinar County Club, another stop in Florida for many of the players who already had an eye focused on the Masters a few weeks ahead. Palmer, one of the Florida Citrus Open winners (1971) during its 13 years at Rio Pinar, had taken up winter residence and ownership across town at Bay Hill and his interest in moving the Citrus Open to his club was welcomed by all concerned.
The move came in 1979 and the tournament has grown in prestige ever since. It operated the first five years under the full-field open format and produced an interesting cast of winners, starting in 1979 with surprise victor Bob Byman, whose playoff win over John Schroeder proved to be the highlight of an abbreviated tournament career. The next four titles went to Dave Eichelberger in a remarkable finish in horrid weather conditions in 1980, Andy Bean with a seven shot victory in 1981, Tom Kite with his first of two Bay Hill wins in a playoff against Jack Nicklaus and Denis Watson in 1982, and Mike Nicolette, like Byman snaring his only Tour title, winning in 1983 in a playoff against Greg Norman.
The tour elevated the tournament to elite invitational status in 1984, reducing the size and insuring the quality of the field, which usually has a powerful foreign contingent that World Rankings show is surpassed during the season only by the major championships. Gary Koch won that year, shooting 63 in the final round and defeating George Burns in a playoff.
Hertz assumed a four-year sponsorship in 1985 and Fuzzy Zoeller, Dan Forsman, Payne Stewart (with a tournament-record-tying 62 and record 264) and Paul Azinger joined the winners' circle. Nestle entered the picture and became the title sponsor in 1989, when Kite became the tournament's first two-time winter, beating Davis Love III in a playoff.
During the ensuing year, Palmer and his design team revamped the course, redesigning all 18 greens, reworking all of the bunkering and making major changes in four of the holes that altered the yardage from 7,103 to 7,196 and par from 71 to 72.
Robert Gamez scored the tournament's most spectacular victory in 1990 when he holed a seven-iron shot for an eagle deuce at the 72nd hole and consigned Greg Norman to a second runner-up finish. Andrew Magee won a weather-shortened event in 1991, Fred Couples roared to a record nine-stroke win in 1992 and Ben Crenshaw claimed a two-shot victory in 1993, finishing in near-darkness that Sunday.
Loren Roberts, who had labored in relative obscurity for years on the Tour, emerged as one of the finest players in the mid-1990's as he won at Bay Hill in 1994 and repeated in 1995. Yet another first-time winner was crowned at Bay Hill when Paul Goydos landed the title in 1996 and Phil Mickelson added the prestigious title to his fast growing victory list in 1997, as did Ernie Els in 1998. Office Depot, the presenting sponsor those three years, was succeeded by Cooper Tires in 1999. In the decade's only playoff, Tim Herron beat fellow Minnesotan Tom Lehman in 1999.
Tiger Wood's dominance of the tournament began in 2000, as he rolled to a decisive four- stroke victory. He made it two in a row the next year with a spectacular birdie on the 72nd hole to nip Phil Mickelson by a stroke. The run continued in 2002 as Tiger again won by four shots and he became just the third player in Tour history to win the same tournament four times in a row in 2003 with a truly astounding final round performance. Even though still battling the after effects of overnight food poisoning and sloshing through an all-day rain, he shot a 68 that zoomed him to an 11 stroke victory, the biggest margin in tournament history.
MasterCard became the presenting sponsor in 2004, when Chad Campbell won the title with a strong final-round rally. Kenny Perry won in 2005 after Vijay Singh put his approach in the water at the final hole for his third second-place finish at Bay Hill. Disaster decided the outcome again in 2006 whtn Greg Owen dropped three strokes on the last two holes to allow Rod Pampling to win with a par on the final hole.
Singh atoned for his three near-misses, especially in 2005, with a two-shot victory in 2007 before Woods scored his fifth and sixth triumphs at Bay Hill the next two years. The greens and bunkering were completely reworked during the ensuing summer and the 4th and 16th holes were restored as par-fives, making the course par 72 for the 2010 event, as Els picked off his second title in a tight Monday finish over Kevin Na. Scotland's Martin Laird became the first European winner of the tournament in 2011, nosing out Steve Marino with an 87-foot two-putt on the final green.
Back came Woods with his seventh win at Bay Hill in 2012, his first on the TOUR since 2009. It matched his victory total in the WGC Bridgestone Championship, one short of Sam Snead’s all-time record eight wins in the Greater Greensboro Open.