Arnold Palmer's legacy lives on at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The worn leather chair is pushed back from the desk, as if its owner has just stepped away for a minute. The shades are varying levels of drawn, enough to keep the outside world in view while preventing the sun from shining too brightly. Three pairs of shoes sit idly nearby, including muddied sneakers. Next to them, a frayed copy of a Louis L'Amour paperback. The bookshelf holds a collection of hardcover favorites, surrounded by a few crystal trophies and framed photographs of family members. On the floor, dozens more photos wait to be hung, their protagonist with one arm around dignitaries, or celebrities, or friends, the other stretched out to offer his familiar thumbs-up greeting.

This was Arnold Palmer's office. No, this still is Arnold Palmer's office. Six months after his death, on the eve of the first Arnold Palmer Invitational that won't feature him welcoming players and scrawling his celebrated signature for thousands of fans, the office in the southeast corner of the Bay Hill Club & Lodge second floor remains completely untouched.

Except for one notable difference.

Prior to his death on Sept. 25, there were always a few large stacks of mail piled up in this office. From massive manila envelopes to ones made for greeting cards; from longtime soldiers in Arnie's Army to newer admirers. Each correspondence had a message for the man, maybe an old story about how he served as an inspiration, or a quick note about why he was so revered. They also wanted something: an autograph from the man who famously never turned down a request.

These stacks are all gone now. In the past six months, every letter in every stack has been answered. Every person who wanted an autograph has been sent a pin featuring his umbrella logo and a note of regret.

"We acknowledged our sorrow for not being able to accommodate their request," explained one of his two daughters, Amy Palmer Saunders. "That was hard to do."

It's one thing to pay homage to a legend by insisting his legacy will be kept alive. It's quite another to let actions speak louder than words. Answering that mail -- just as the man nicknamed The King would have done -- symbolizes the consistent tone at Bay Hill, a tone that continues posthumously.

Another example: This past weekend, a Palmer statue was unveiled between the first and 10th holes. It stands 13 feet tall and weighs 1,392 pounds. Unlike other memorials, it is not encased in glass or behind velvet ropes. Instead, people are encouraged to touch it, feel it, even take selfies with it. Like the man himself, it will remain approachable and accommodating.

At a place where the receptionist still answers the phone, "Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill ..." questions have arisen over the past six months as to what will happen to the club without him -- and more specifically, what will happen to his eponymous tournament. These are questions to which Palmer Saunders, who oversees operations at Bay Hill, offers some definitive responses.

"What's going to happen is that it's going to continue on as my parents would have wanted it to," she said recently. "My intent is that everything will carry on as it always has. We have a vibrant club, we have a vibrant membership, we have people who are very committed here on our staff, and I think that the intent is that we will just continue to appreciate that this is the legacy of Arnold and Winnie Palmer. We want to represent them that way."

Those charged with helping represent the Palmers' values include a fivesome of new tournament hosts: Annika Sorenstam, Graeme McDowell, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen and former U.S. secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge, who was a close friend of Palmer's. But it is the tournament's previous host -- the man whose name has officially been attached to the event for the past decade -- who is still making the greatest impact.

The charitable component of this week's event will be Arnie's Army, a foundation started to help sick children, paralleling the local hospitals which bear both his and his late wife's names. There will be a literal march to raise money to fight pediatric cancer and other organized efforts.

All of it was Palmer's idea, his way of preserving the tournament's ideals long after his death.

"He recognized how important it was to sustain the future, to have something that would continue to give back to all the things that were so important to him during his career," Palmer Saunders explained.

"He said, 'I want everything to be meaningful, I want it to be intentional and I want it to be done right,'" said Kevin Bingham, CEO of the foundation. "So we're trying to make it that way."

This week will be another opportunity for the golf world to mourn and celebrate one of its most popular heroes. It will afford a chance for people to pay tribute to the man once again, a man whose fingerprints are still all over this club and this tournament.

It won't stop, either. At week's end, instead of the traditional champion's navy blazer, the winner will receive an article of clothing a little more familiar to Palmer's wardrobe -- a red cardigan sweater.

"I think there will be a lot of things that are very symbolic," Palmer Saunders said. "My dad was not big on pomp and circumstance, but I think there are a lot of things that will represent who he was in a very meaningful and subtle way. And I think that's what we're trying to accomplish."