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Everything points to Tiger
By Neville Leck Last updated: 20th March 2013
After his stand-out victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship two weeks ago, it's not surprising that Tiger Woods is everybody's favourite to win this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando.
Palmer, arguably the most influential golfer of the 20th Century, was widely known as "The King" in his heyday, but right now it is Woods who is the king of Bay Hill.
This week's defending champion has won here seven times, both on the old par-70 course and on the tough new 7,419-yard par-72 layout - and if that's not enough to back up the 3/1 odds the bookies have bestowed upon him this week, what about the fact that both he and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn have announced they are now an official couple?
This news, together with photographs of the beaming duo, seems to reinforce the recent impression that The Tiger has been looking much more like the happy and confident superstar he used to be before his extra-marital activities landed his marriage in trouble and saw it end in a highly-publicised and costly divorce some two or three years ago.
Clearly the 21st century's greatest golfer and owner of 76 PGA Tour titles including 14 majors, is in a much better place now than he has been in for at least two years - and the golf he is playing and the bookies odds right now certainly reflect this.
After his 3/1, the next best odds on offer this week are the 16/1s on Phil Mickelson, also a Bay Hill winner, and Justin Rose, the 20/1s on Brandt Snedeker and Sergio Garcia and the 22/1 on golf's newest restaurant owner Graeme McDowell.
Snedeker's return from a rib injury might throw a spanner in the works for Tiger - if the current PGA Tour Money List leader comes out firing with the same brand of golf that last year made him the FedEx Cup champion and this year saw him pick up two second-place finishes and one third before he won the Pebble Beach National Pro-am and took his earnings for 2013 to a whopping $2 859 920 in just his fifth start of the year.
The fact that he hasn't played any competitive golf since then could count against him this week, to be sure, but he might well be the event's dark hose and is worth keeping an eye on.
Bay Hill won't be easy - especially for the some of this year's highly-talented rookies. Of the 33 first-timers who have played there in the past four years, only Bud Cauley can claim a top 10 finish.
This not only because the course's length and freshening winds at the weekend - they could get up to 19mph on Sunday - could combine to make it difficult to get close to the hole in regulation, but more so because it takes experience of the kind that Tiger has to read its fast, undulating Bermuda greens that can run up to 12 on the Stimpmeter.
Woods has almost always handled this final leg of the PGA Tour's Florida swing better than most - and should do so again - especially if he can maintain the sweet putting momentum he managed to get going for his Cadillac triumph two weeks ago following a pre-tournament lesson on this critical art by good friend Steve Stricker.
Somewhat ironically, Stricker finished second to him, just two shots back, and had he, like Rory McIlroy, not decided to take a break this week, Stricker too may also have found himself up among the next best favourites behind Woods.
As things are, however, offshore invaders Garcia of Spain, McDowell of Ireland and Rose of England seem to be the men most favoured to push Woods.
Garcia is having a solid run right now, his tie for seventh at Copperhead last week being his 13th straight top-25 finish - and for good reason.
He's been hitting more fairways and more greens than most (3rd and 6th respectively at Copperhead) and putting better than he has in a while, so don't count him out - especially if Tiger falters as he did, to some extent, with that closing 71 at the Blue Monster.
And you could say the same about McDowell, the runner-up to Woods at Bay Hill last year when he co-led the field in both fairways and greens hit in regulation.
In a good season so far, the 2010 US Open Champion also tied for third at the WGC-Cadillac and Woods could do himself a favour by keeping a wary eye on the Northern Irishman.
Besides, McDowell might well be buoyed by the fact that he has just opened his new Nona Blue restaurant at the nearby Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, the Orlano home to many of the game's greatest golfers.
And Rose? Sheer consistency has been his strength recently. The lanky Englishman will be teeing off at Bay Hill on Thursday with 12 consecutive top-25s to his name, including a top-eight finish at the WGC-Cadillac and is once more expected to be a top contender.
Along with Snedeker and Mickelson - he tied for third at the recent WGC-Cadillac - some of the other Americans expected to get up with the front runners are Bubba Watson (28/1), the USA's biggest hitter who led the field in distance off the tee and ranked 5th in GIR when he finished 4th at Bay Hill last year, and two of their nations latest major winners, Webb Simpson (US Open) and Keegan Bradley (PGA Championship), whose skill with their belly putters could stand them in good stead on Bay Hill's hard-to-conquer greens.
Last week, the US PGA Tour unearthed an unexpected, first-time winner in Kevin Streelman, but while there is always the possibility that it could happen again in a game like golf, it's not a very likely result at Bay Hill if past stats mean anything
In the seven years since the event's name was changed from the Bay Hill to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, all but one of the winners - Scotland's Martin Laird in 2011 - have been multiple major winners.
Vijay Singh won it in 2007, Ernie Els in 2010, and Woods, who looks set to carry off the trophy once again, in 2008, 2009 and 2012.
For the record, Tiger also won the old Bay Hill Invitational back-to-back in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003
For all the latest odds, click here to go to oddschecker.com
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