Rookie Yani Tseng, playing in only her third major championship, became the youngest winner of the LPGA Championship, when she beat Maria Hjorth in a four hole playoff.
Mel Evans/AP
Friday, March 14, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Arnold Palmer has seen just about everything in his lifetime of golf, which began as the son of a golf course superintendent and progressed through 62 victories, seven major championships and a career as one of the game's endearing figures.

That changed a couple of months ago. The King never imagined needing a microscope in golf.

But it was those microscopic images of a nematode — a fancy name for a worm that damages grass — that made him deeply concerned about Bay Hill leading up to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"I've been in the golf course business all my life, and I've treated a lot of situations, and this was probably one that worried me as much as any," Palmer said Wednesday. "I found things that I didn't know about grasses and golf and the horticulture. There are 40 different species of nematodes, and I looked at microscopic shots of them crawling up the roots of the grasses and the whole thing."

The PGA Tour sent in as many specialists as it could find, and the problem has been fixed as best as possible. Sod was plugged on some of the greens, and the PGA Tour posted a notice last week that greens were improved, but would not be ideal.

Palmer said the greens were in good shape, and by that he meant the tournament could begin Thursday. They won't be as fast. They won't be as pure. But they're good enough.

Early scouting reports indicated they were fine on the front nine, but a bit shaky on the back. Mainly, they will be slower than usual. Tiger Woods was not impressed with any of them.

"They are not very good," Woods said. "It's going to be an interesting week on them. You're going to see a lot of guys hit good putts and they're going to go weird ways, unfortunately. But, hey — we've all got to deal with it."

This might be the year the nematodes nearly killed Bay Hill. The next chapter of the Arnold Palmer Invitational is whether Woods can slay a course that has treated him like a champion and a chump.

No other PGA Tour stop has been more a case of feast or famine for Woods.

He has won the Buick Invitational and the Bridgestone Invitational six times each, and has never finished out of the top 10 on either golf course. He has won the Masters and PGA Championship four times each, but has never gone more than two years in the middle of the pack.

Bay Hill is where he won often, sometimes with one hand tied behind his back.

That's only a slight exaggeration. It was in 2003 when Woods won Bay Hill for a record fourth consecutive year. He suffered a stomach virus so severe in the final round that he had dry heaves and was dehydrated, yet he still won by 11 shots.

It was the King's course. It was Tiger's domain.

Or was.

Since that fourth consecutive victory, Woods has not finished better than 20th, his longest such drought of any tournament.

"I just haven't played well, simple as that," Woods said Wednesday. "This golf course, you have to play well on it in order to win the tournament. You can't go out there and slap it around and try and shoot something in the mid-60s here."

That makes this year even more intriguing, for Woods has won four straight times on the PGA Tour, five straight times around the world, six straight times when you throw in his silly-season Target World Challenge.

It gets complicated, but the best measure is simply that he has won every tournament he has played since the first week of September.

"We don't have time for me to tell you what I think about Tiger and his golf," Palmer said Wednesday. "Because I think that right now, he has got it by the neck, and he's choking it. And he should."

Bay Hill is the true start to Woods' road to the Masters, the first leg of a Grand Slam that he has said was "easily within reason." Next up is the CA Championship at Doral, where Woods has won three straight years.

The tournament also got three additions Wednesday during a bizarre chain of events that began when John Daly missed his pro-am time and was disqualified from the tournament.

Daly, playing on a sponsor's exemption, said he called Tuesday to get his pro-am time, but was given his tee time for the first round, which was 9:47 a.m. His pro-am time was 8:40 a.m., and when Daly didn't show up, he no longer was eligible to play.

The first two alternates — Ryuji Imada and Nick O'Hern — thought they were not supposed to be at Bay Hill until the afternoon. When they weren't around to take Daly's spot, they were disqualified, too.

Ernie Els previously withdrew, citing fatigue. That leaves only three of the top 10 in the world ranking — defending champion Vijay Singh is No. 11 — but plenty of interest because of a certain No. 1.

A victory for Woods at Bay Hill would give him four tournaments that he has won at least five times.

"He can play pretty average and win," Masters champion Zach Johnson said. "Most of us have to play pretty darned good. Plus, he's got that Nicklaus aura when he's in contention."

During four bountiful years of posing with Palmer and the silver sword trophy, Woods had a 67.93 scoring average and was 65-under par. In the four lean years that followed, his average has been 71.37, and he is 2 under.

Perhaps more noteworthy is he only three-putted twice over 288 holes of winning. During the drought, he has had eight three-putts.

"I'm heading in the right direction," Woods said. "Really excited about the way I'm progressing this year so far. Getting better each and every event, which is good."

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