After some lengthy moves over the past few months, the PGA Tour’s trek is much shorter this week, as just 80 miles separate Tampa, where last week’s Valspar Championship was played, and Orlando, the site of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
A strong field is on hand for the Bay Hill’s second edition since the tournament namesake passed away in September of 2016.
Eight-time API champion Tiger Woods will get the majority of the attention, and for good reason given his runner-up finish last week, but he is far from the only world-class player set to tee up this week.
Here is what to look for this week:
1. TIGER HEATING UP FAST
Coming into 2018, the “big” story was the long-anticipated return to competitive action of 79-time Tour winner Tiger Woods. One of the most transcendent icons in professional sports, debate after debate was had regarding his future prospects.
Would he be the same player he was before? Will he ever win another major? Heck, will he even win a Tour event again? Now four events into the comeback of comebacks, one answer has become clear: Tiger is still pretty darn good.
Finishing T23 in his first event back, the Farmers Insurance Classic, was impressive given the layoff, the difficulty of the course (Torrey Pines), and the fact that he placed so well despite performing ghastly with his driver.
A missed cut at the Genesis Open was disappointing, but understandable and not in any way alarming. At least he was still healthy.
Tiger spent a considerable amount of Sunday in his third outing back, the Honda Classic, on the leaderboard’s top 10, eventually settling for a solo-12th, also extremely encouraging.
Then came last week’s Valspar Open. Despite the rust he is clearly still shaking off, Tiger finished runner-up at Innisbrook, finishing at 9-under par, and playing all four of his rounds under par.
After four opening-round bogeys, he had just three over the final three rounds combined (one in each). He finished third in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, stayed sharp around the greens, and actually hit a decent amount of fairways.
A long birdie putt on 17 looked like vintage Sunday Tiger, which gave him a chance to force a playoff with with a birdie on 18. He posted a par, but the T2 finish was much better than expected given all the circumstances.
Now, stop No. 5 on the Tiger Woods Comeback Tour occurs this week at Bay Hill, the host venue of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, an event he’s won eight times.
The tournament has been held annually since 1966, and no other golfer has won at Arnie’s Place more than twice. Among those Tiger triumphs was a one-stroke thriller over Phil Mickelson in 2001, an 11-shot romp in 2003, a 25-foot walk-off putt on the last hole in 2008, and a five-stroke Sunday comeback in 2009.
In his most recent trip to Bay Hill, Tiger nabbed win No. 8 in a Monday finish over Justin Rose. He has not played the past four editions, mostly due to injury issues, but he has every reason to be confident teeing it up at this course again.
In a span of just four tournaments, the golf world has gone from just hoping Tiger could stay healthy and competitive, to suddenly expecting a win.
He is the odds-on favorite to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, in a strong field that includes the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, and Hideki Matsuyama.
It is almost surreal that Tiger is back in this position so soon after a spinal fusion and a litany of mental challenges.
2. MAKING GOLF MATTER AGAIN
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries for Tiger’s better-than-expected 2018 results are the television networks and other media outlets.
Even the 2.0 version of Tiger, who has not won in five years, is far and away the biggest draw in the sport.
The final round of last weekend’s Valspar Classic saw the highest ratings of a non-major since 2013. The Valspar even beat out three of last year’s four majors ratings-wise.
The Valspar’s ratings were a day and night comparison to the previous year’s event, which did not include Tiger. Golf sites are seeing a precipitous rise in traffic and crowds at the events are more hooked on the 42-year-old Woods than they are for any of golf’s more recent stars like Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas.
The Tiger Effect is a real thing, and his competitors are richer for his success. His presence at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational is a boon for the event, and the anticipation for next month’s Masters is more palpable than it has been in years.
Everyone has Tiger to thank for that. Regardless of how many problems he goes through, both on and off the course, one thing has not changed: people still love them some Tiger.
His more distinguished competitors are going to have to again get used to second billing. The Tour survived without him, but is much, much better off with Tiger being healthy and competitive again.
3. LEISHMAN DEFENDS
Last year’s event had the somber distinction of being the first Arnold Palmer Invitational held since the passing of the tournament’s popular namesake the previous September.
In a celebration of the life and legacy of Arnold Palmer, the tournament was conquered by Australia’s Marc Leishman, who put together a tremendous final round to overcome a three-shot deficit at the turn and win his first tournament in five years.
Leishman’s Bay Hill triumph catalyzed a career season that included a FedExCup playoff victory at the BMW Championship, a career-high seven top 10s, nine additional top 25s, and a career-low three missed cuts.
His $5.87 million in earnings was 229% of his second highest season, when he netted $2.6 million in 2014. The then 33-year-old finished the 2017 PGA Tour season with the fourth best scoring average, and the sixth most FedExCup points.
The breakout season was a fulfillment of the immense promise he showed at the 2013 Masters (T4) and the 2015 Open Championship (T2, lost in playoff).
However, the 2018 season has been a mixed bag for Leishman. On the positive side, he has finished T8 or better in three of the eight events he has entered, including a runner-up finish to Justin Thomas at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges.
On the less positive side, his other five events have resulted in a missed cut and four finishes outside the top 30. He is coming into Bay Hill on a T31, CUT, T37 three-tournament stretch. His last competitive round was a Sunday 77 at the WGC-Mexico Championship two weeks ago, a disastrous round that led to a 26-spot drop on the final leaderboard.
Despite his less-than-stellar recent play, Leishman is still a man who is less than six months removed from the best stretch of golf in his career, and with the Bay Hill victory last year, he should be coming in confident in his defense.
It would not be shocking if Leishman went back-to-back, which would mean three consecutive API’s won by an Aussie, after just one native Australian had won in the previous 50 editions (Rod Pampling in 2006).
4. DAY, MATSUYAMA RETURN TO ACTION
With all the attention Tiger is getting coming into this tournament, two other elite players are sneaking in a little under-the-radar after a month-long layoff: 2016 Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Jason Day and five-time Tour winner Hideki Matsuyama.
Day is coming off a 2017 season that was a large disappointment by his standards. He came into the year ranked No. 1 in the world and fell to 13th by year’s end. He had zero victories on the season, a big drop-off from the eight he had captured over the previous two seasons, and his five top 10s were his lowest since 2012.
That being said, Day, now ranked No. 10 in the world, appears to be back to his A game. In four events in the new season, he has finished T11, T11, WIN, T2, and he is back to No. 1 on Tour in strokes gained: putting, a statistic he where he led the Tour for the year in 2016. He looks healthy and confident, and is primed to return to his position as one of the Tour’s premiere players.
Day is well-rested after having not played in the past month. He sat out the recent WGC-Mexico Championship to spend time with his mother, who had surgery to treat her lung cancer last year, a circumstance that Day took very hard, which showed in some of his uncharacteristically poor results. He finished a respectable T23 in his Bay Hill defense last year, a solid result given the state of his game and mental state at the time.
This year, he expects to be closer to his 2016 result, where he obliterated the field in the first two rounds after a sizzling 66-65 start, and held off the field on Sunday for his ninth career PGA Tour victory.
While Day is back to his top-class form and is expected to content this week, things are less certain for 26-year-old Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama.
A wrist injury has kept the five-time Tour winner on the sidelines for the last month, with his most recent action being a withdraw after a first-round 69 at the Phoenix Waste Management Open.
Now allegedly healthy, Matsuyama hopes his elite ball-striking engenders a finish better than the T6 he posted in 2016, his best finish in the event. He struggled in this tournament last year, however, as a final-round 76 meant a disappointing T45 finish, one of his worst outings of the season.
5. RORY DOWN
Another very highly regarded player on the comeback trail is 4-time major champion Rory McIlroy. In last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory made the cut on the number, but then exploded on the weekend with rounds of 65 and 69.
He even held the lead for a time late on Sunday, but played the final six holes in one-over to drop into a tie for fourth, two strokes short of Leishman.
The 28-year-old Rory is coming off a season that was basically lost due to a nagging rib injury that took much longer than expected to heal. He finished the year at No. 11 in the world rankings, the first time he finished a year outside the top 10 since 2008, when he was just 18 years of age.
McIlroy looked like he was “back” with a tremendous stretch of play in Europe in late 2017 and early 2018, where he posted three top-3 finishes in four events. However, since he has come back to play stateside, his play has been… not good.
In four U.S. events over the last month Rory has two missed cuts, a T20, and a T59. He has looked especially un-Rory like the past two weeks. He was 5-over through two rounds at last week’s Valspar Championship, missing the cut by three strokes, and is currently on an undesirable streak of six straight rounds over par, which is unfathomable for somebody with his level of talent.
It is expected that the now-No. 13 in the world will recapture his elite form, but he has not given much indication that it will happen soon.
Perhaps this will be the week, as positive memories of last year’s weekend at Bay Hill gets him his swagger back. The Tour is much more interesting when Rory is good.
6. VALSPAR RESPONSES
As exciting as last weekend’s finish of the Valspar Championship was, the results have lead to questions for some players, based on how they finished their final round. Each of these three players dealt with a significant final round disappointment, but only have four days to shake it off before they tee off at Arnie’s Place.
A thoroughly unimpressive season from the usually-formidable Patrick Reed, a former top-10 machine who had yet to record one through nine events on the year.
Since late October, a T17 in Phoenix was the only event he even finished top-20. However, everything would have been forgiven had Reed been able to take top honors at the Valspar Championship, and his Sunday had been going spectacularly, with a opening-hole eagle a big credit to his being -4 through 17 holes, which tied him for the lead with Paul Casey.
A birdie on 18 would have meant the first victory for the 27-year old since 2016. A birdie become improbable after his approach left him far from the hole, but he turned bad into worse when his long, uphill putt did not make it over the ridge, and the ball came rolling back to his feet. He would eventually card a bogey, falling one stroke short of Casey.
This will be Reed’s first start at Bay Hill since a T52 in 2014. If he is able to forget the disappointing on the 72nd hole at Innisbrook, he should be able to work off the momentum of his best outing of the season.
Playing with Tiger is never easy, as the enormous crowds he draws brings about extra distractions, but Sunday partner Brandt Snedeker was atrocious in the role.
Just one stroke off the 54-hole lead, Snedeker stumbled to a 7-over that included seven bogeys and one double-bogey. He was never able to find his footing, and plummeted 29 spots down the final leaderboard, finishing T31.
It had been looking like his best performance since he missed the latter part of the 2017 season with a rib injury, but now he stays in a slump where he has not finished better than T20 in any of his seven starts this season.
Another high-profile player just one stroke off the lead after three rounds was Justin Rose, the world No. 5 who had three wins worldwide over the final two months of 2017.
Rose found himself in the lead after a birdie on the first hole, but it would be his only below-par hole of his final round. His last 17 holes comprised of 15 pars and two bogeys, leading to a 1-over 72 that left him three shots behind Casey.
Still, Rose is off to a strong start in his PGA season, with one victory and three finishes of T8 or better in four season starts. His best Bay Hill finish was a solo-2nd in 2013, the most recent of Tiger’s eight tournament victories.