ORLANDO, Fla. — Fairmont native William McGirt had a friend of the late Arnold Palmer come up to him on Monday while he was practicing at Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida, in preparation for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"(He told me) that I was one of AP's (Palmer) favorites because Arnold appreciated and respected how hard I worked to get where I am," said McGirt, who is in his eighth season on the PGA Tour.

"(Palmer) always had time to chat or take a picture with me and my family."

Palmer, the every-man "King" of golf, died 19 months ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the age of 87. His presence will be felt throughout the week in Florida as players gather for the legend's annual golf tournament.

One of the enduring images when it comes to Palmer, a graduate of Wake Forest University, is the umbrella logo dressed in red, white, yellow and green. Always widespread at Bay Hill, several golfers will be featuring the logo on their bags and apparel this week.

McGirt said he'll have the logo on his hats and the head covers for his clubs.

"As for AP and being back at Bay Hill, it's hard not to think about him each and every time you step on the property," McGirt said. "He did so much for the game of golf. He touched so many lives on and off the course."

Palmer ranked among the most important figures in the sport’s history, going well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins, which ranks behind only Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan.

Palmer played at least one Tour event every season for 52 consecutive years, ending with the 2004 Masters. He was the Tour Player of the Year in 1960 and 1962. His first professional championship was the 1955 Canadian Open and his final PGA Tour title came in the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He also spearheaded the growth of the 50-and-older Champions Tour, winning 10 times and drawing some of the event’s biggest crowds.

McGirt has fared well in Palmer's event since joining the Tour. Prior to missing the cut with a pair of 74s in last year's tournament, McGirt made the weekend in six of his past seven appearances at Bay Hill with a tie for eighth in 2013.

Coming off his third top-20 finish of the season, a tie for 16th at the Valspar Championship, McGirt said he's becoming more confident in his ball-striking and putting.

"Played pretty well last week," he said. "Fought my putter the last three days big time. I'm starting to hit it a little better and I actually feel like I'm putting decent, but not making anything."

McGirt is grouped with MacKenzie Hughes and 2016 PGA Champion Jimmy Walker for the first two rounds at Bay Hill, a par-72 course. The trio will go off the first tee at 8:23 a.m. Thursday.

Woods, coming off a runner-up finish in the Valspar Championship, returns to Bay Hill for the first time since claiming an eighth victory there five years ago.

The 14-time major winner will be among those to challenge defending champion Marc Leishman, who earned a one-shot triumph over Charley Hoffman and South Carolina native Kevin Kisner last season.

But this week is about more than the competition. With a bronze statue of Palmer overlooking the first and 10th tees, McGirt said he will be reminded of the memories he shared with "The King."

"AP was the best," McGirt said. "I'm thankful for the time I was able to spend with him and for his willingness to chat."

McGirt is 74th in the FedEx Cup standings and comes in as the 116th-ranked golfer in this week's Official World Golf Rankings.

 

Staff writer Rodd Baxley can be reached at rbaxley@fayobserver.com or 486-3519.