March 15, 2017 / 8:28 PM / 2 years ago

Arnold Palmer tributes to flow despite depleted Bay Hill field

(Reuters) - Emotions will run high at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week as golfers pay tribute to seven-times major champion Palmer who died last year as they hone their games for next month’s U.S. Masters.

Given this is the first Palmer Invitational since one of golf’s greatest players died at the age of 87 in September, many expected a stellar field but world number one Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson are among those skipping it.

Defending champion Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and British Open champion Henrik Stenson are, however, among the big names taking part.

“There’s not a player out here who doesn’t respect Arnie, everybody loved him,” Briton Ian Poulter, who received a sponsor’s exemption into the event, told Golf World.

“The course might not suit everybody’s eye and because of that some guys might not play. What’s also difficult is it’s a busy calendar.”

Australian Day returns after his wire-to-wire win in Orlando last year when tournament host Palmer watched on as he clinched a one-stroke victory by getting up-and-down from a greenside bunker at the final hole.

The world number two has struggled in 2017, however, and will be eager to rediscover his form after missing the WGC-Mexico Championship due to an ear infection.

Swede Stenson could also be one to watch as he finished inside the top 10 at last week’s Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, and has been in the top eight at Bay Hill every year since 2013.

McIlroy looked impressive in his return from a rib injury at the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he made his first start on the PGA Tour in 2017 and finished on 10 under par, four shots behind winner Johnson.

Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond

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