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In honoring Arnold Palmer, something's got to give

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Looking ahead to Bay Hill (2:13)

On the eve of Bay Hill, Andy North shares his conversation with Arnold Palmer, provides insight into some of the recent changes on the course and predicts how the weather will impact the tournament. (2:13)

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Word trickled out that Rickie Fowler visited Arnold Palmer last week at the Bay Hill Club to apologize in person for being unable to play in the golf legend's tournament.

The news was confirmed reluctantly, as the idea to drive to Orlando from West Palm Beach and have lunch with Palmer was not meant to generate any publicity, but to simply do what Fowler felt was the right thing and express his reasons for having to pass due to a scheduling conflict. It was an incredible gesture, and showed an impressive level of understanding.

Bubba Watson did something similar, a slight injury preventing him from competing this week. No doubt there are others who are not here but sent along regrets in various forms, such is their admiration and respect for Palmer. In recent years, when Tiger Woods had to miss the tournament he has won eight times, he called Palmer directly.

Of course, there are some who believe the ultimate respect is to be here no matter what, regardless of circumstances (short of injury.) There has been some grumbling that No. 1 Jordan Spieth isn't playing. Nor is Fowler. Phil Mickelson isn't here, either. A good number of players elected to skip the annual PGA Tour stop that began Thursday.

Should they be here, no matter the circumstances? Should they pay tribute to Palmer by reconfiguring their lives, playing schedules and tournament preparation as a way of saying thanks to the man who many believe is the single-most important figure in the game's popularity and growth?

As great as that would be, as impressive as it would look for each of the top players in the world to be participating in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it is simply not realistic. Or fair.

The PGA Tour would love nothing more than to have perfect attendance. On Wednesday it announced enhancements to the tournament that will see its purse rise to $8.7 million next year (an increase of $2.4 million) and a new impressive charitable component. The Arnie's Army Charitable Foundation has been formed in part to sustain Palmer's legacy.

Palmer's tournament began in 1979 and he's been a big presence every year. But for the first time, Palmer, 86, did not hold a pre-tournament news conference. He answered questions via a pool reporter. And he announced that he would not be taking part in the ceremonial first tee shot at the Masters next month.

"Time marches on,'' he said.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem heaped praise on Palmer and his tournament but stopped short of saying he was disappointed that some players elected to skip. Finchem knows as well as anyone that the choices afforded the top players and the demands on their time are vast. It is dicey business twisting arms to play certain events when each event on the schedule also would dearly love to have those same golfers.

And yet the tour is as much to blame for this predicament as any player is for choosing not to attend. The tour wants pros to compete in the biggest tournaments. The four major championships stand on their own, with the Players Championship right behind. Then there are the four WGC events and the four FedExCup playoff events.

During the past 17 years dating to the inception of the WGCs, the PGA Tour has all but set up different tiers of events.

Where do the tournaments for the legends fit in? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods also have events. So does the late Byron Nelson, whose event in Dallas has carried his name since 1968 but has seen a drop-off since his death in 2006.

Two weeks ago, the WGC-Cadillac Championship featured 47 of the top 50 in the world. Next week's WGC-Dell Match Play is missing two from the top 64, Henrik Stenson and an injured Jim Furyk.

Take the example of Spieth. He's been criticized recently for too much travel, too many tournaments. He is taking this week off. Should he have played this one, too? If so, it would be five tournaments in a row leading into his Masters title defense, an unrealistic expectation.

That means he'd have to skip a tournament. Which one? The WGC at Doral or the WGC in Austin, where he attended the University of Texas? Should he have skipped last week's Valspar Championship, where he was the defending champion? Does he skip the Houston Open, and is it fair to that tournament if he does?

Mickelson, who has played at Bay Hill 14 times and won in 1997, has skipped three straight, mostly because he likes to play two in a row heading into the Masters. If he played this week, that would be three. Is his approach wrong because it means skipping the API?

The PGA Tour and professional golf in general offer so many "must-play'' opportunities that something has to give. Palmer has taken a less visible role this year. But he's been known in the past to exert some good-natured pressure on those he thinks should be at the tournament, including Rory McIlroy.

Nicklaus, whose Memorial Tournament began in 1976, has been hands-off in that regard. "I've never asked a player to play any place in all the years I've had the Memorial Tournament or been involved (at the Honda Classic),'' said Nicklaus, whose foundation is the beneficiary of the South Florida tournament. "People say, gee, I hope I can be there. And we say, we hope you can, too.''

And Nicklaus draws on his own experience as one who was always under pressure to show up.

"When I played, I didn't want people bugging me about playing. If I could try to get there and play, I would. I can't play every place,'' he said.

Woods has taken a similar approach with the two tournaments that benefit his foundation, the Quicken Loans National and the Hero World Challenge. Perhaps it has something to do with always being in demand, and understanding that players have their reasons for playing when they do. He doesn't pressure them.

In each of their own ways, Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods have done enormous things for the game that suggest players should honor them with their presence at their respective tournaments. Their official events -- Woods' Hero World Challenge is an offseason event that is not official but does offer world ranking points -- each come with three-year exemptions for winning. Victories at regular PGA Tour events hand out two-year exemptions.

The legends' events also have limited, invitation-only fields of 120 players. They are meant to be special tournaments, and have been afforded that status.

"It's great to come here and play homage to one of the greats of the game and someone who built this game into what it is today,'' said McIlroy, who tied for 11th in his first visit last year and said he regrets not coming sooner. "You look at all of us with all of our logos on and endorsement contracts and all that sort of stuff and making so much money from this game, and Arnold was really the first one to do that.''

Adam Scott almost laughed when asked what makes the tournament an attractive one for him.

"First and foremost, Arnold Palmer. Is that enough said? I mean we can go on,'' said Scott -- who nonetheless skipped the event for four straight years from 2010 to 2013. "You'll hear it all week from us all how much he means to the game, how much respect he has from all the players and the players' generations after him understand what he's done for us.''

That is an admirable stance by two of the game's premier players. They get it.

But even Palmer, the game's ultimate capitalist, understands the workings of a free market, the numerous opportunities offered, and the difficult decisions that have to be made by the top players. It is not as simple as "they should be here."