Bay Hill still boasts a strong field. It's just a lot smaller

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Arnold Palmer Invitational is now one of the signature events on the PGA Tour, meaning it has a $20 million purse with one of the strongest fields of the year on a tough golf course at Bay Hill that rarely produces surprise winners.

In other words, it's the same as last year, only with a lot fewer players.

The eligibility for these signature events was projected to be 70 to 80 players. Bay Hill has 69 players (Tony Finau chose not to play), the smallest field yet. And that includes North Carolina junior David Ford, who earned a spot based on his play in the Palmer Cup last year.

An elite field, yes. And the smallest ever at Bay Hill.

“Right now it just feels a little bit more quiet at the event,” Viktor Hovland said. “It's hard to kind of tell how it’s going to be in the tournament. That’s kind of the way that I gather from Riviera and this week — it still feels like the same tournament, just a few less guys. So, it feels maybe a little bit more chilled before the tournament starts.”

It's so small that Nick Dunlap, who in January became the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour in 33 years, will be starting the tournament Thursday as a single. The rest of the field will be in twosomes, one of many perks for the players. Twosomes goes quicker than threesomes.

Still to be determined is what kind of result it produces.

With a typical 120-man field at Bay Hill a year ago — back then, it was known as an “elevated” event but still with a $20 million purse — Kurt Kitayama emerged from a cast of challengers that included Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth.

The way it's gone this year on the PGA Tour, expect anything.

Pebble Beach never played a final round because of the wind and rain. Wyndham Clark was declared the 54-hole winner, and he remains the only player from the top 50 in the world to have won on the PGA Tour this year. Riviera had Hideki Matsuyama shoot a 62 to beat Luke List. Both were lacking the depth of star power.

But then, it's been like that all year.

Dunlap won The American Express on a sponsor exemption, causing him to decide early to leave Alabama in the middle of his sophomore year and turn pro. Matthieu Pavon of France, who earned a PGA Tour card through the European tour, won at Torrey Pines. Another rookie, Jake Knapp won in Mexico. Austin Eckroat picked up his first PGA Tour title last week at the Cognizant Classic.

Five winners and four players who have been runner-up this year have played their way into the Arnold Palmer Invitational. As a player-hosted event, the payoff to the winner is $4 million instead of $3.6 million. The FedEx Cup points are amplified. This is where players want to be.

“There's just a lot of guys who are hungry to get those events,” Scheffler said. “They're highly motivated. The reward for playing good is arguably a lot bigger now than it ever has been.”

The best explanation in golf is that it's cyclical. There also is the LIV factor, even though only Masters champion Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton were the only top players to defect this year.

“I've noticed a difference from now to when I first came on tour,” said Justin Thomas, who is entering his 10th year. “More guys can win. It's deeper. Players are better. I feel like they have more knowledge of the game. A good week before was 10th. Now they feel they can win.”

Now it's a question of whether the top players will emerge as the Masters gets closer. Scheffler won at Bay Hill two years ago during his rapid rise to No. 1 in the world. McIlroy won in Dubai and is adding more tournaments to his schedule.

Cantlay and Schauffele had their chances at Riviera until stalling on Sunday.

“Nine events isn't a really big sample,” Schauffele said. “I think there’s still a lot of golf to be played, and we’re kind of getting into what I would call sort of the thick of the season. I imagine you’ll start seeing some of the higher-ranked players winning.”

It all starts on Thursday, and the stars will be out on the course, anyway. It should be louder. Even so, there was a different feel to Bay Hill caused largely by space. With fewer players, there was a lot more room to move around.

“I came out yesterday to practice for a couple hours and it feels like no one’s here,” Will Zalatoris said Tuesday. "You’re used to having the 120 (players), so it’s bizarre. ... Having 50 less guys, there's no question about it, that's a different feel. But I’ve enjoyed it so far.

“I’ve only played in one, but it’s kind of fun when you walk up and everybody you see is pretty much a top player.”


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