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At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a fitting tribute to a legend

ORLANDO -- Arnold Palmer's golf bag stood on the far right side of the Bay Hill practice range Wednesday morning under one of his familiar umbrellas, just yards from where its late owner used to practice his craft. His grandson, Sam Saunders, picked out a club and offered his grandfather's famous thumbs-up greeting. The surrounding gallery grew silent. Then it started.

Saunders first. Then one by one, like sweet-swinging dominoes, his fellow competitors followed. Ceremonial tee shots to begin a ceremonial week. A flyover from a Coast Guard helicopter ensued, buzzing the solemn scene below.

This served as yet another appreciation of the erstwhile tournament host, who passed away six months ago. They're almost too numerous to count, from the official -- such as the Arnie's Army march to fight pediatric cancer and the lighting of a recently unveiled 13-foot statue -- to the unofficial, as most players in this week's field have their wardrobes or golf bags adorned with that umbrella logo.

In golf terminology, the words "tournament" and "event" are often synonymous, interchangeable ways of referring to the four-round, 72-hole competition held on a weekly basis.

Not this week. No, this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational is a tournament wrapped into a bigger event, a tribute to a man credited for influencing so much within the game.

We can't plan these sorts of things, of course, but Palmer's death last September led to an immediate mourning period, one that has morphed into a celebration of his life ever since. That celebration has continued in his honor this week. There are more smiles than tears, more shared anecdotes about the man than painful memories of our loss.

"I hope the players and fans remember and can still feel my grandfather's presence here this week," said Saunders, now in his third year as a full-time PGA Tour member. "I know I do. I think all of us do. I hope the fans appreciate the fact that all these players are here because of my grandfather and they, they're doing it from the goodness of their heart.

"Obviously, they want to play in a PGA Tour event, they want to put on a good show for all of them and we want to have a great tournament, but they're doing it because they truly care. They care about this game, and we are here to put on a good show, and I know it's going to be a special week. I just hope everyone can remember: We are here for a golf tournament, but we are here for a greater good."

This is a tournament, yes. But it's also an event, those two terms uncommonly unequal this week.

It's about the feel on this course that has hosted the past 39 editions of this tourney. It's about the tone. A competitor could, somehow, know nothing about Palmer or his impact on the game and still understand a tangible difference between these proceedings and those of every other week on the PGA Tour.

"It feels way bigger than what it was last year," explained Jason Day, the defending champion. "This is the first year that we really haven't had Mr. Palmer around. We need to make sure we do it right. They seem like they have stepped up big time this year and made this event that much more special not only through the golf course conditions and through just visual of the grandstands and all that, but being able to have the ambassadors and seeing them today out in the opening ceremony. ... I think that they're taking the correct steps to proceed in the right direction with regards to making sure that this stays where it should be, and that's exactly where it is right now."

Rory McIlroy agreed.

"It's going to be different," he said. "But I don't think that should be a sad thing, necessarily. ... There's so much around here that reminds us of him, so it will be different. But I definitely don't think this tournament has taken on some bitter atmosphere at all. It should be a celebration of what has been a great life."

There's that word again -- celebration. That's really what this is, what it should be, what it needs to be. Not a memorial to the man who meant so much, but a tribute to him. Not the end of an era, but the continuation of a legacy.

There is a tournament this week, here at Arnold Palmer's adopted home. More important, though, there's an event. It feels different this week, just like it should.