As the allowed number of fans have slowly been increasing at PGA Tour events, although still a long way from pre-COVID levels, the drama among the players and the competition has increased precipitously.
Over the past three weeks, we have seen Daniel Berger close out Pebble Beach with an eagle, Max Homa take a storybook triumph at his home course at The Genesis Invitational, and in the first event of the Florida swing a week ago, reigning PGA Champion Collin Morikawa notched the fourth win of looks like the early stages of a Hall of Fame career.
This week, the action moves over to Bay Hill for the second event of the Florida swing: the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, the high-prestige event named for one of the all-time greats.
A year ago, the story was the weather, as blustery conditions kept the field well out of the red numbers, with just four players finishing under par.
The lead-in to next week’s THE PLAYERS Championship has a number of enticing storylines. Here are four to give especially close attention to:
1. Hatton Defends
Coming into the Arnold Palmer Invitational a year ago, then 28-year-old Tyrrell Hatton was considered among the best international players to not yet tally a win on the PGA Tour. He had a few high finishes in majors, and contended until the end at the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship, where he fell one stroke short of a playoff against Justin Thomas and eventual winner Phil Mickelson.
The Englishman was known largely for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, and getting down on himself after poor shots.
However, Hatton’s Tour profile changed dramatically when he outlasted a difficult field on a poor weather weekend at Bay Hill, making clutch pars down the stretch to win by a stroke over API savant Marc Leishman.
The win jumped him from 31st to 22nd in the OWGR, catalyzing a stretch of hot play, mostly on the European Tour which got him as high as No. 5 a week ago. He currently sits at No. 6 after getting jumped by Collin Morikawa last week. That makes him the highest-ranked player in this week’s field.
Now Hatton makes his first title defense in the U.S. this week, and is given a solid chance to become the tournament’s first back-to-back champion since Matt Every in 2014-15.
Since his win a year ago, he has two victories on the European Tour, most recently winning by four at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. He has not added a second win on the American tour, but does own four top-10s, including three top-5s (T3, T3, T4).
He finished T22 at last week’s WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession, seemingly hot or cold at any given point during the week.
2. Spieth Back To It
There is not a lot that three-time major champion Jordan Spieth has not done on the PGA Tour, but one of those will happen this week as he plays Bay Hill for the first time in his eight seasons as a professional. The former world No. 1 notched his 11th career victory at the 2017 Open Championship, just four days before his 24th birthday.
Now four seasons later, Spieth has shockingly not won since that major victory. At times, his game has been such a wreck that he dropped as far as 92nd in the OWGR. In his first seven starts of the 2021 season, he missed four cuts and had nothing better than a T38.
However, the 11-time Tour winner might just be finding his form again. In his last three starts, he finished T4 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, T3 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and T15 in his most recent start, which was at The Genesis Invitational.
Critics would point to the fact that he was at least the 54-hole co-leader in those first two starts, unable to keep pace on Sunday, but he knows how to win, and just getting into contention again should be a tremendous boost to his career. His short game has especially been clicking, as he currently ranks 12th on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-green.
Spieth will be looking to keep the positive feelings going in his first attempt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He did get some rest, not qualifying for last week’s WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession, the first time as a pro that he failed to qualify for a WGC event.
3. International Flavor
The first 32 editions of the Arnold Palmer Invitational were won by American players, with the streak finally being snapped by South African Ernie Els in 1998. The Big Easy, in his prime at just 28, won by four strokes over Bob Estes and Jeff Maggert.
The U.S. took the next seven, with four of those (in a row) coming from one Tiger “Eldrick” Woods, whose eight victories are six more than the next closest player. The internationals again took the 2006 version, the winner being Australian Rod Pampling.
While the Americans have largely dominated this event, that trend has completely changed recently, with international players taking the five most recent Arnold Palmer Invitational titles: Aussies Jason Day and Marc Leishman, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, Italian Francesco Molinari, and England’s Tyrrell Hatton.
The internationals look to be in good shape to grab a sixth-straight win, as they comprise six of the eight top-ranked players in the field, led by the defending champion Hatton (No. 6).
Rory McIlroy, who has as good a history in this event as anyone not named Tiger, will again tee it up this week – marking his fifth start in the last six weeks, only opting out of Pebble Beach.
In addition, World No. 13 Viktor Hovland has top-5s in his last three PGA Tour starts, including a runner-up at last week’s WGC event, despite a quadruple-bogey on his Friday scorecard.
England’s Matthew Fitzpatrick had the only sub-70 weekend round last year in a T9 finish, and was runner-up in 2019. He is coming in hot with a T5-T11 stretch the last two weeks. South Korean Sungjae Im, 22, won in Florida last year (Honda Classic) and has finished third in both of his attempts at Bay Hill.
Lastly among the top 20s in the field, No. 18 Paul Casey, who won the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January, has gone T8-T5 in his last two PGA Tour starts.
The U.S. has just three top 20 players in the field this week: No. 9 Patrick Reed, No. 11 Bryson DeChambeau, and No. 19 Harris English, the latter whose last three starts comprise two missed cuts and a 66th place finish in a no-cut 72-man event.
4. Rory’s Chances
Undoubtedly the biggest name in this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational field is four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who has been downright phenomenal in this event. His fans fondly remember his epic Sunday performance on the homeward nine at Bay Hill to claim victory in the 2018 edition.
Four strokes back of Henrik Stenson at the 54-hole mark, Rory charged late with birdies on Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18 to post 8-under 64 and win by three strokes over Bryson DeChambeau.
Each of his last four starts at Bay Hill has resulted in a top-6 finish, including a year ago, where he was in second place going into the final round. Double bogeys on Nos. 6 and 9 spoiled his chances of for a second API title in three years.
Rory was shockingly pedestrian in the 2020 Tour restart after the three-month layoff for the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Rory is in much better form since the FedExCup playoffs. Since then, he has made 11 starts with five top 10s and only one result worse than a T21.
The 31-year old seems to be coming around again at just the right time, as he is currently in the longest winless drought of his accomplished career since his 2008 rookie season as a teenager. His last win was at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November of 2019.
In the current season, Rory ranks second in driving distance, strokes gained: off-the-tee, and third in birdie average.