The last leg of the Florida swing gets underway Thursday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which has traditionally been the final tuneup for a handful of notable players prior to the Masters just three weeks away. The weather looks good for the first two days heading into the weekend, with temps in the low-mid 70′s and partly sunny skies, but by the weekend it’ll be noticeably warmer with increased winds and more probability of isolated thunderstorms, particularly during Sunday’s final round.
All eyes will obviously be on Tiger Woods this week, and for good reason – there’s not a course in the world where Woods has felt more comfortable and enjoyed more success than Bay Hill. A win Sunday will earn him his 8th career win in the event, and it would also move him into a familiar spot that he hasn’t been since the last week of October back in 2010 – the top spot in the official world golf rankings again. So what exactly is it about Bay Hill that brings out the best in Tiger? In a word – putting. As we saw 2 weeks ago in the Cadillac Championship, Woods feels right at home on the bermuda surfaces, and his putting so far this season has been right on the money. Given a much stronger form with regard to both his tee game and iron play, in addition to what appears to be the return of a confident putting stroke, the field this week will have their work cut out for them keeping Tiger out of the winner’s circle Sunday evening.
5 Players Worth Keeping an Eye On
Sergio Garcia: enjoying a nice stretch of solid playing coming into this week, having finished T7 last week in Tampa and T3 the week prior in Doral. He’s obviously been considered one of the top ball strikers in the game year in and year out for much of his career, but the modified claw putting grip has definitely rejuvenated his game the past two seasons in particular. He’ll need a steady hand on the quick, grainy bermuda greens this week, but he’s fared surprisingly well in this tournament in recent years, finishing inside the top-10 on 4 of his last 6 appearances here.
Hunter Mahan: one of those solid players, somewhat like Justin Rose, who tends to fly under the radar until Saturday afternoon. Hunter’s gotten off to a solid start this season, finishing T8 in the Northern Trust Open and then finishing 2nd in the World Matchplay back in February. He’s not fared particularly well at Bay Hill over the years, with his best showing coming back in 2008 when he finished T6. But I think he’s due for a good week here, and he’s hitting a lot of greens so far this season, which will serve him well this week.
Bubba Watson: finished T4 in this event last season, leading the field in driving distance and T5 in greens in regulation. He finished T18 two weeks ago at the Cadillac Championship, and could easily find himself in contention Sunday if he can find some momentum with the putter. He’s entering the final stretch before his title defense at Augusta in just a few short weeks, so I think he’ll be a little more focused than usual this week.
Justin Rose: has responded to a great 2012 campaign with a T4 and a T8 in his last two starts this season. Since 2010, Rose has enjoyed 4 wins, 9 top-5′s and 18 top-10′s, making him a very safe pick in just about every event he plays. There’s absolutely nothing to not like about his game, although his putting can be a bit streaky. He finished T-15 last season at Bay Hill and T-3 here in 2011. If his stroke is on this week, he could be the one player in the field that everyone else forgets about until Sunday, as he continues to be one of the most overlooked players playing the game.
Keegan Bradley: starting to show signs of life after a sluggish start this season, with a T4 at the Honda Classic and a 7th place finish at Doral two weeks ago. The anchoring issue has distracted his confidence on the greens, but he seems to be finding his form again. He’s obviously got the game to win anywhere on any given week, and I think he’s playing a course that suits his style of play.
Before closing, I thought I’d share a neat interview with Arnold Palmer, courtesy of Golf.com. A lot of you are familiar with my personal story involving Mr. Palmer several years ago, albeit happenstance at the 2000 US Senior Open at Saucon Valley. I’ll spare you the details, only to say that it more than reinforced why I think he’s the greatest ambassador the game has ever known.
Take a couple of minutes and check out Arnie’s Scrapbook HERE. You won’t be disappointed.
As for me, I’ll be out of the office for the next few days, but will resume Monday and offer my post-tournament thoughts about what happened over the weekend.
Until then, may it be warmer and dryer where you are than where I am.