We missed you, Tiger.
But we didn't need you.
We would have loved for you to have been here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but even without you the crowds were incredible, the weather was beautiful and the golf was stunning.
In fact, Francesco Molinari, the Italian Stallion, out-Tigered Tiger on the 18th hole Sunday when he bombed a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 18 that finished off his fantastic final round at 8-under 64. The moment was reminiscent of Tiger's hat-slamming 25-foot birdie on the 18th hole that beat Bart Bryant for the 2008 Arnie championship.
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"It was an iconic putt," Molinari said afterward. "... It's amazing to have this happen at Arnie's place. This is a tournament I used to watch on TV when I was a kid back home in Italy. It's just a magical place. To have a final round like this happen here makes it even more special."
Don't get me wrong, Molinari winning The Arnie didn't create nearly the national buzz that would have been generated if Tiger had been in contention instead of withdrawing on Monday with a strained neck. But locally, Arnie's tournament remains Orlando's premier annual sporting event and continued to thrive despite the massive void left by Tiger's absence.
The crowds were as big as they were last year – and in some cases even bigger. On Saturday, for instance, ticket sales, merchandise sales and concessions outnumbered last year when Tiger made his first appearance at The Arnie in five years.
Tiger or no Tiger, The Arnie at Bay Hill is a happening – a social event and the place to be in Orlando for four sun-filled, fun-filled days in March.
"It's been a fantastic week," said Marci Doyle, the CEO of The Arnie. "When Tiger withdrew, I was concerned for him, but I wasn't concerned about our tournament. Fans love coming to the tournament because we have a great event and a great field and it's a great time."
Amen to that.
Too bad national TV viewers and the global media aren't like local fans who just want to drink a few beers and have a lot of fun while watching some of the top players in the world. There's no doubt, TV ratings will pale in comparison to last year when Tiger was in contention on Sunday and the final round of The Arnie got better ratings than the final round of three of 2017's Tigerless majors – the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.
When Woods withdrew from The Arnie earlier this week, NBC/Golf Channel analyst Paul Azinger used the word "heartbroken" to describe public reaction to Tiger's absence. Heartbroken is traditionally a word you use to describe your wife dumping you for another man or a family member passing away; not the 12th-ranked golfer in the world withdrawing from a tournament with a pulled muscle.
This is the problem with golf in its current state. Tiger's presence might be good for the TV ratings in the short term, but he is stunting the growth of the game in the long term. Why? Because he's not even close to being the best player in the world anymore and yet he continues to hog all of the attention that should be going to guys like the world's No. 1 player Dustin Johnson, the No. 2 player Justin Rose, the No. 3 player Brooks Koepka, the No. 4 player Justin Thomas, the No. 5 player Bryson DeChambeau and on and on and on.
What other athletic endeavor can you think of where the 12th-best player in the sport is seemingly the only player the national media and TV audience cares about? It's just not natural. Can you imagine if the 12th-best player in the NBA – say, Damian Lillard – receives 10 times more attention than LeBron, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry? Can you imagine if the 12th-best quarterback in the NFL – say, Matthew Stafford – got twice the exposure of young, exciting gunslinger Patrick Mahomes?
With all due respect to Tiger's past greatness, sports fans and sport media should be focusing on players like Molinari, the defending British Open champion who came from five shots back and put on an unbelievable Sunday showcase for euphoric fans at The Arnie.
It wasn't so long ago when we were all concerned about what would happen to this tournament when Mr. Palmer passed away nearly three years ago. Would the top players in the world continue to show up without Arnie coaxing them to Bay Hill?
So far, so good.
Six of the world's top 10 players and 12 of the top 20 were in the field this week. The $9 million purse and the three-year winner's exemption put The Arnie at the top of the mountain among regular PGA Tour stops. Not only that, but its new position on the schedule – a week before the prestigious Players Championship – likely means more international players will show up to play. Case in point: Molinari not only won The Arnie but was one of the eight international players who filled the top nine spots on the leader board.
And after his post-tournament news conference was over, Molinari raised a glass of Arnie's favorite vodka – Ketel One – and honored the King.
"A toast to Arnie," Molinari said, raising his glass to members of the media. "I hope he's proud of what I did to today. Here's to Arnie!"
Here's to Arnie indeed.
And to The Arnie.
An amazing tournament.
With or without Tiger.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mike Bianchi is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.