Phil Mickelson has one top 10 in five events this season.
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Thursday, January 05, 2012

Forget everything you thought you knew about this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Orlando's Bay Hill.

That's because a four-month redesign of the course (after the '09 tournament) and the absence of You Know Who have thrown the tournament wide open.

Likely scenario No. 1: A Phil Mickelson victory.

The last time he went this deep in the schedule without a W was 2006. Then he won the BellSouth and the Masters in consecutive weeks. Bay Hill could end up being another launch site for another Mickelson victory at Augusta. He last won at Arnold's Place in 1997, but as part of the course redesign, Palmer had workers cut the rough around the greens, creating run-off areas that allow for more short-game creativity. That's a Phil thing.

There are also new bunkers — some are bigger (the greenside trap at the par-3 17th hole); some are now shaped, back-to-front, like a cresting wave; and fairway bunkers were moved farther from the tees. The newly re-sodded greens are flatter, too.

"The course is wonderful," said Sam Saunders, Palmer's grandson, who is playing on a sponsor's exemption this week. (Former USC standout Jamie Lovemark also got an invite.) "All of the new bunkers look great. It defines the course better. The greens are bigger, a little bit flatter but better quality grass. ... I think the guys are going to rave about it this week."

Likely scenario No. 2: Rickie Fowler breaks out.

The last time Fowler played Bay Hill, for the 2006 AJGA HP Boys' Invitational, he shot 66-67 over the final two rounds and won by four.

"I love it out here," Fowler, 21, said Tuesday.

He was speaking about the Tour in general, but he may as well have been talking about Bay Hill.

Of course no one loves the place like Tiger Woods.

That he has dominated news coverage without playing in four months is a bit ridiculous, but his absence this week can't be overstated. Last year's win was his sixth in 10 years at Bay Hill, dating back to 2000. Tiger WAS Bay Hill; everyone else was Benny Hill. Witness the 2009 show, when Woods not surprisingly came from five shots behind to overtake poor Sean O'Hair.

The comeback equaled the largest of Tiger's career but was somehow less memorable than the year before, when Woods also made a winning putt on 18, to sink Bart Bryant. (Woods's absence from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines earlier this year was just as noteworthy. Including his 2008 U.S. Open win, he'd won six times in 10 years there, too.)

Yet there is no guarantee that Woods would have prevailed this week. The course is that different. "We've literally done something to every hole," Palmer said.

Bay Hill will return to a par 72 this year for the first time since 2006. The fourth and 16th holes will be played as par 5s instead of par 4s, which means 16 will go from the hardest hole (4.466 stroke average last year) to possibly the easiest.

There is greater visual definition on tee and approach shots. The new greens allow for more than 40 new pin positions, according to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Likely scenario No. 3: A victory by Steve Stricker, 1998 Bay Hill champ Ernie Els or Camilo Villegas. Vijay Singh, the 2007 winner, withdrew with a bad back for the second straight tournament.

Behold golf's version of Homecoming Week. After starting its season with tournaments in Thailand and Singapore, the LPGA Tour heads to La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., for the inaugural Kia Classic Presented by J Golf and the circuit's first tournament of the year on U.S. soil. (Memo to San Diego-area fans: Show up to the tournament driving a Kia, get free parking. No joke.)

The Kia boasts 17 of the top 20 in the Rolex Ranking, led by No. 1 Lorena Ochoa and red-hot Ai Miyazato (winner of the year's first two events). It's the first time hosting the LPGA for La Costa, which held its final WGC-Accenture on the PGA Tour in 2006.

The European Tour tees off for the first time in Europe at the Open de Andalucia de Golf in Spain. This, after tournaments so far in South Africa, the Middle East, India, the U.S. (WGCs) and Morocco.

Miguel Angel Jimenez, whose management company is co-promoting the tournament, has won before on this course, Parador de Malaga Golf. Pablo Martin, who lives just down the road from the first tee, Alvaro Quiros and defending champion Soren Kjeldsen are also expected to contend for the title.

Finally, the Nationwide Tour commences its domestic season at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open (at Le Triomphe C.C. in Broussard) after visiting Australia, New Zealand, Panama and Colombia.

The Champions Tour resurfaces with the Cap Cana Championship at Punta Espada Golf Club in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Mark O'Meara led by as many as four shots at last year's Cap Cana, but Keith Fergus holed a 95-yard wedge shot on 17 and prevailed.

Amazingly, O'Meara, who turned 50 more than three years ago, is still winless on the senior circuit.

 

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