Ninth Bay Hill crown for Tiger?
If there’s one name other than Arnold Palmer which looms large at this week’s PGA Tour stop, it’s Tiger Woods.
The World No 1 will chase an unprecedented ninth title at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, and while he has dominated many events over the course of his career, nowhere is his superiority quite as clearly underlined as at the tournament which bears Arnold Palmer’s name.
Woods won it four times in a row from 2000 – 2004, and then added four more victories in 2008 and 2009 and 2012 and 2013.
Simply put, he could hardly ask for a better venue to play with the Masters drawing ever nearer.
He’s as likely to return to form and rediscover that winning feeling at Bay Hill – the 7,419-yard, par-72 layout in Orlando Florida which has hosted the Arnold Palmer Invitational since 1979 – as he is at any course in the world.
Palmer bought the private golf resort in 1974, and has frequently tweaked the original 1961 Dick Wilson design – though it’s been largely unchanged for the last five years.
Looking at the field, the likes of Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy may be absent, but Woods still headlines a strong group.
World No 2 Adam Scott and No 3 Henrik Stenson are in attendance, as are the likes of Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Bubba Watson and newly crowned WGC-Cadillac Championship winner Patrick Reed.
Still, it’s Tiger who will be the dominant storyline at this year’s event, a distinction he tends to hold whenever he plays but which is even more keenly felt at Bay Hill.
Last year, he had to return for a Monday finish before he successfully held off the challenges of Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose. It handed him his eighth Bay Hill title (tying him with Sam Snead as the only other eight-time winner of a single PGA Tour event) and saw him retake the World No 1 ranking.
Twelve months later, however, and the situation Woods finds himself in is somewhat different. Question marks linger over the state of his troublesome back, which has contributed to a lackluster series of early-season performances – including, most recently, a Sunday withdrawal at the Honda Classic and a 25th place at Trump Doral.
He hasn’t even had so much as a top-10 finish to show for his efforts this year, but again, Bay Hill is as good a place as any for Tiger to start erasing doubts.
Some of the most likely candidates to make life difficult for the eight-time champ is Bubba Watson, whose last three strokeplay events have yielded results of T2-win-T2, Justin Rose, who has declared himself fully fit and has two top-3 finishes to his name at Bay Hill, Adam Scott, who admittedly hasn’t played this tournament since 2009 but hasn’t finished worse than T25 in his nine previous starts, and Graeme McDowell, who is coming off four top-10 showings.
If confidence is an indicator of form, then Patrick Reed should be a force to be reckoned with, while the likes of Henrik Stenson, Ryan Moore and Zach Johnson can’t be ignored.
There have already been nine different PGA Tour winners in what has so far been a highly unpredictable 2014, however, so the chances of another new name joining that distinguished list is more than a little likely.
Bay Hill, meanwhile, should offer players another stern challenge. Not too long ago, it was considered the most difficult non-major course on the PGA Tour, though that was when it was a par 70.
It now plays as a more measured par 72, and should play easier than the likes of Trump National Doral and Copperhead, two recent courses that have had players frequently pulling out their hair in frustration.
Expect the weather to play its part as well. Conditions should be near-perfect, with balmy temperatures and light breezes the order of the day throughout the week.
There will be no ninth Bay Hill crown for Tiger Woods. The World No 1 withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Tuesday after his back problems resurfaced.
Woods is now in a race against time to have the issue sorted out before the Masters tees off on April 10.
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