ORLANDO, Fla. — His 12-year-old dog, named after a second-chance shot, was stretched out on the carpet near his office and resting his bones.
“Well, Mulligan’s like me now,” Arnold Palmer joked. “He’s getting old.”
Hard to believe that the General of Arnie’s Army is 84. His spirit remains ageless, his iconic presence as enduring and endearing as ever.
“I have nine great-grandchildren,” he said. “Did you hear what I said? Nine.”
He then counted down his 15 grandchildren, and the collection of Arnie descendants represents another impressive field. Palmer was affable and unassuming as usual sitting behind his desk at his Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge, preparing for the Arnold Palmer Invitational starting Thursday.
He enjoys playing the role of host to a generation he paved the way for some 50 years ago (and yes, he’ll even offer you a refreshment he made famous, an Arnold Palmer, part ice tea and part lemonade).
Palmer said he expects the course to be in its best shape ever and hopes the weather cooperates this year.
However, this time there are two down notes on the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Phil Mickelson — the 1997 Palmer Invitational champion — and Tiger Woods are out of the tournament.
Woods announced Tuesday night that he wouldn’t play because of recurring back issues.
Last year, Woods won Arnie’s storm-delayed event on a Monday for the eighth time, tying Sam Snead’s record for most victories in a single tournament. Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times from 1938-1965; Woods also has eight wins at Torrey Pines, including a U.S. Open.
Woods beat Justin Rose by two shots last year at Bay Hill, finishing 13-under. He returned to No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time since October 2010, looking like vintage Tiger after overcoming injuries and turmoil in his personal life.
“Just astounding,” Palmer said.
But . . .
“A month of rest, treatment and careful preparation would do him a lot more good than trying to win for the ninth time at Arnold Palmer’s place,” wrote Scott Michaux of the Augusta Times.
Of course, Augusta, Ga., is home to the Masters, the first of four majors this season. You might have heard that Tiger hasn’t won one of those for six years, still trailing Jack Nicklaus in majors won, 18-14.
Like most players, Woods, 38, holds a reverence for Arnie that trumps taking a rest. Tiger skipped the Valspar Championship last week near Tampa on the Florida swing.
Palmer knocks on wood for luck for Tiger and raps his knuckles on his desk for himself when asked about his health.
Other than a sore hip — Palmer said he recently had a pain-relieving cortisone shot — Arnie says he’s in reasonably good shape. He recently played a round — “Hey, I got through all 18” — but really hasn’t played much or worked on his game.
“What game? If you can find it, let me know,” he said. “I love the game, but it’s hard to play when you can’t play the way you once did.”
Tiger can relate as Father Time nips at his heels, knees and back. Palmer can’t exactly put his finger on Woods’ drought in the majors.
“You never know why. In the early days, it seemed to work for him,” Palmer said.
Arnie added that winning those five majors to surpass Nicklaus will be tough for Tiger.
“Big time. Big time,” Palmer said. “Look, Tiger’s a great player. You don’t need to assume or guess. He’s proven he’s a great player by his finishes and his participation over the years ... and not only has he won, he’s finished very good in the events, so that’s something else.”
Tiger is still golf’s main attraction, much like Arnie was years ago. The Orlando-based Golf Channel has produced a documentary about Palmer’s life and legacy called “Arnie” that will air this week.
Movie stars to former presidents were interviewed. During a promotional segment on the Golf Channel website, one admirer called Palmer “the John Wayne of golf.”
“I’m flattered and, of course, humbled by the remarks they make and certainly appreciate the fact that we’ve been so fortunate to have what we have and to see the hospital do so well,” Palmer said, referring to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando that are the charitable beneficiaries of the tournament.
“When you have people come in and thank you for saving a kid’s life, that’s very humbling and nice to hear those things and to see the kids doing so well.
“All of those things are part of the tournament and the future, and the future is very important to us.”
As for the future, Palmer said that he hopes the Arnold Palmer Invitational will live on, spearheaded by his daughter, Amy.
“My family will be the ones to keep it going,” he said. “Amy is doing a lot of work now. I’m sort of shifting gears and stepping back a little bit, and I hope that she and her family will keep it going forever.”