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To play or not? A delicate dance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The first time he played a major championship in America, Ernie Els had the good fortune of being grouped with Arnold Palmer during the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis.

He was 22 years old in 1992 and virtually unknown, two years away from winning the U.S. Open and embarking on a Hall of Fame career that has seen him win four major championships.

You think that meeting with Palmer didn't have an impact? As they parted ways after 36 holes, Palmer shook Els' hand with his sturdy, unwavering grip and extended an invitation to the South African to his tournament in Orlando the following year, then known as the Nestle Invitational.

"He told me it was the only time he gave an invitation to his event like that, on the spot,'' Els said. "It was incredible. Can you imagine?''

Els is proud that he went on to win Palmer's tournament twice, in 1998 and 2010. And he's obviously thrilled to be a part of the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where the event will be played for the first time since its namesake passed away in September.

The week promises to be joyous and somber, a reminder of Palmer's proud past, and yet filled with the sadness that comes with knowing he won't be here. Many players will compete this week out of respect for the man who won seven major championships but millions more fans worldwide.

But some big names will be missing. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott are among some of the marquee players who will not be playing in the longtime PGA Tour event. Should they be here? It is an uncomfortable debate that percolates amid the lead-up to the event that Palmer started in 1979.

Els will be here for the 23rd time, dating back to his first appearance in 1993 that stemmed from that personal invite. And he understands those who have their scheduling reasons for not playing.

"I was in that position for many, many years when I was top player,'' said Els, 47. "I played in more events than others. You've got to go with what you are comfortable with. We all absolutely respect what Mr. Palmer did. But I get the guys that can't play (this week). You've certainly got priorities you have to try and meet. Some of the guys just can't do that. You have to take it for what it is. It is no disrespect to Mr. Palmer, I can tell you that.''

That hasn't stopped some from questioning those decisions. When asked a few weeks back if he was playing at Bay Hill, Paul Casey sounded incredulous at the notion he might be somewhere else. "Why wouldn't I?'' he said.

Billy Horschel took to Twitter last week to voice his displeasure over those not playing when it was reported at the time that just 10 of the top 25 players in the world had committed. That number has since risen to 14 of the top 25.

"Disappointing,'' Horschel tweeted. "Totally understand schedule issues. But first year without AP. Honor an icon! Without him wouldn't be in position we are in today.''

It is difficult to argue with Horschel's logic, and yet in today's golf world it is far more complicated than that. The PGA Tour has surrounded the Arnold Palmer Invitational with must-play events such as the WGC-Mexico Championship two weeks ago and next week's WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas. And three weeks from now is the Masters.

To that end, Johnson, Spieth and Mickelson are playing three in a row starting next week. And it is difficult to quibble with Spieth's thinking, as he has done that the past three years and finished second, first, second at Augusta National.

Graeme McDowell said it is unfair to criticize a player who chose to take the week off. "Very much so,'' he said. McDowell has a formal role with the tournament this year along with Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen and Annika Sorenstam.

They were given the impossible task of serving as "hosts'' in Palmer's absence, a humbling and exciting role for McDowell, who is from Northern Ireland but lives in Orlando. Both of his children were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.

"It's really not about this year,'' McDowell said. "Guys will come and pay their respects. Guys won't be (here) and will be criticized unfairly for it. How do you pay your respects?''

Mickelson, for one, attended Palmer's memorial service in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in October. Last year, when Rickie Fowler couldn't play in the tournament, he drove to Orlando the week prior and met with Palmer over lunch to express his regrets. He is playing this year.

Regardless of who is playing or not, there is no denying Palmer's impact on the game and how his tournament kept him part of the PGA Tour well past his playing days.

Palmer first started coming to central Florida in the early 1960s -- before Disney World was born -- and fell in love with the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where he set up his winter operations. In 1970, he took out a five-year lease on the property with a right to buy, which he did in 1975. In 1979, his own tournament was born, with the existing PGA Tour stop at Rio Pinar relocated to Bay Hill.

Although Palmer still called Latrobe home, he spent a significant amount of time at Bay Hill. He owned a condo a short walk from the club and his office was located above the pro shop -- still looking much as it did before his death.

"Obviously we feel the Tiger Woods influence to the point that, perhaps, we don't appreciate the Palmer influence as much,'' McDowell said. "But he created the stage from which Tiger leapt off. Arnie really laid the foundation for the modern game. He was one of the first superstars who wasn't just a golfer.

"With how beloved he was, he opened up all the doors to the charities, the businesses, the superstardom, the jets, commercials. He was probably the first superstar golfer.''

Sam Saunders is looking at the big picture. The grandson of Palmer, who is a PGA Tour player, said he's disappointed that some players are skipping, but he understands. He also is concerned about the future.

"It's very important to golf to keep what we've done, to keep the Arnold Palmer Invitational relevant,'' Saunders said. "I'm saying this as a guy on tour ... To keep it the focus for a long time. His was such a good example. Such a great way to go about playing the game.

"We all get to play for a lot of money, but it's about trying to do things other than just being out here for yourself. That's what he did so well. Graeme understands that, and we can all work harder to be that way.''

The PGA Tour in recent years stepped up to enhance the Arnold Palmer Invitational by increasing the purse and giving a three-year exemption to the winner. Like the Memorial Tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus and the Quicken Loans National hosted by Tiger Woods, these "invitational'' tournaments have just 120-player fields.

But nothing is guaranteed, something that the Byron Nelson Championship saw after the legendary Nelson passed away in 2006. The strength of field has fallen off in recent years, due in part to the tournament's place on the schedule as well as the golf course.

"Some of the guys didn't like the way the course was being set up,'' Els said. "They stopped showing because of that. I would not like to see it, but it's possible (at Bay Hill). Maybe if the API guys get a date where they don't sit right in the middle of the two World Golf Championship events, maybe they'll get a better field.

"I get it. First event without Mr. Palmer around. Make an exception. But you can't tell guys where to play.''

There is an understandable tinge of sadness as well as fondness when Els talks about Palmer. He remembers back to that first meeting in 1992, the invitation to Bay Hill, and then being paired with Palmer for the first two rounds at the 1993 Nestle Invitational.

Els shot 75-75 to miss the cut; Palmer, shot 73-76 to make it by one. "That was in '93!'' Els said, marveling at Palmer's resolve.

Palmer was 63, and it turned out to be the last time he advanced to the weekend at his own tournament.

"He was just the best,'' Els said.