ARNOLD PALMER fears his quirky sense of humour might have caused Rory McIlroy to skip this week's Bay Hill Invitational.
The 83-year-old American icon joked during a TV interview last November that McIlroy had better play the tournament he hosts annually at Bay Hill ... or he'd break the Holywood star's arm!
Everyone knew the American golf icon was joking, including McIlroy, who made his situation plain by responding soon afterwards: "Looks like I'll be playing next April's Masters in a plaster cast."
However, nobody was laughing at Bay Hill yesterday, least of all 'The King' as he expressed "surprise" and "disappointment" at McIlroy's absence from the event.
"Frankly, I thought he was going to play," said Palmer during his annual pre-tournament news conference. "For some reason, I got it in my mind that he would be playing, but that obviously is wrong. What his reason or reasoning is, I don't know and I'm not going to worry about it."
Yet Palmer feared his jocular remark might not have come out the way it was intended. "It was sort of casual fun," he ventured. "It was meant to be funny, I guess. I don't know whether it was or not."
While McIlroy has struck up a warm friendship with Jack Nicklaus and makes a point of playing his tournament, The Memorial, each June, the 23-year-old has never teed-it up for Arnie at Bay Hill.
However, he and Nicklaus live in West Palm Beach; they regularly run into each other at the Bear's Club, where the Ulsterman's a member, and McIlroy rates Muirfield Village, venue for the Memorial, among his favourite courses on Tour.
By comparison, Palmer's stamping-ground at Bay Hill is more than 100 miles away in Orlando and, as Arnie admitted, he and McIlroy rarely meet, saying: "I had brief conversations with him some time ago, but not recently."
Tiger Woods, who'll leapfrog McIlroy back to World No 1 if he completes an eighth career victory at Bay Hill on Sunday, dismissed a suggestion by one reporter that his young Irish friend might not be showing deference due to Palmer, an American icon.
Woods pointed out this is only the second consecutive year McIlroy's enjoyed full membership of the PGA Tour, adding that an extra week in the run-up to next month's Masters prompted many to consider playing Shell Houston and/or the Valero Texas Open instead of Bay Hill.
For the record, Woods, Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson are the only members of the current World top 10 playing at Bay Hill.
The other opt-outs are No 3 Luke Donald, in action at the Malaysian Open, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar. Yet McIlroy was the only absentee named during yesterday's media conference.
Tiger painted a sad picture of the times in which we live with the revelation that he and new girlfriend Lindsey Vonn this week posted pictures of them together on Twitter and Facebook to ease pressure from paparazzi.
By making the pictures public, Woods and Olympic skiing star Vonn immediately "devalued" them for the "stalker-azi," whose attention he described as "crazy" adding: "It could get dangerous for my kids."
Tiger looked more at ease on and off the golf course as he romped to his second victory of 2013 at Doral. He's certainly playing well enough right now to defy all comers at Bay Hill and pick up a long-awaited 15th Major title at Augusta.
Woods said he's especially proud to have forced his way back within reach of World No 1 just 15 months after falling out of golf's elite top 50.
The road back began when Tiger won his own Chevron World Challenge in November 2011. However, the pace of his rehabilitation has quickened with each of the five PGA Tour victories he's enjoyed in the past calendar year, starting with Bay Hill.
Among those who could throw a spanner in Tiger's works this week on a golf course softened by torrential rain are Mickelson, fit-again Snedeker and Graeme McDowell.
The Portrush man, who shot a second round 63 on his way into second place at Bay Hill last year, has as much good golf on tap right now as Guinness at his new Nona Blue Bistro in Orlando.
Arnold Palmer Invitational
Live, Sky Sports 3, 7.0pm
Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0am