Tiger Woods has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill six times, but if you’re trying to read the Tiger tea leaves heading into the final tournament of the Florida Swing, good luck with that.
As more bizarre revelations trickle out from Hank Haney’s soon-to-be-released book, The Big Miss, Woods seems more enigmatic than ever.
Here is what we know: Assuming his leg holds up, Woods will play the first two rounds at Bay Hill with Ernie Els and Hunter Mahan, starting on the 10th tee at 8:26 a.m. Thursday.
Woods cited a mild strain in his left Achilles tendon when he withdrew from the WGC-Cadillac Championship on March 11, which seemed to jeopardize his plan to play in Palmer’s tournament, which he won four straight times from 2000 to 2003, and again in 2008 and ’09.
But wait! He decided not only to play Bay Hill, but also the clubby and slightly annoying Tavistock Cup, a two-day exhibition in Orlando.
Will his tender Achilles last all week, or will it act up again and send Woods back to his Jupiter Island estate to rest up for the Masters, which begins just two weeks from Thursday? And what about the skeptics who argued that Woods was never really hurt at Doral and used the injury as an excuse to beg out early? The plot thickens.
Woods withdrew from just two tournaments in the first dozen-plus years of his professional career from 1997 to 2009. But now, plagued by injuries to both left and right Achilles’ tendons, and his left knee, he’s withdrawn three times since the 2010 Players Championship. That he will play with Els at Bay Hill may be a good omen. Woods shot a final-round 62 while paired with Els at the Honda Classic on March 4, forcing Rory McIlroy to make a series of remarkable par saves down the stretch. At the end of the day, Els called himself Tiger’s “lucky charm.”
Woods will also have to get past his press conference on Wednesday, when we could see a repeat of the Honda, where he bristled when pressed to comment on his affinity for the Navy SEALs. Now there’s actually something to talk about: according to AP, the Haney book cites multiple sources claiming Woods tore ligaments in his left knee when he fell and was kicked in an urban-warfare simulator called a “kill house,” while training with the SEALs in California in 2007. In other words, the SEALs -- with an assist from Tiger’s penchant for war games -- may have accidentally protected Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major victories.
And so the self-inflicted downfall of the most dominant athlete of the last 20 years takes another strange new twist, leading to more armchair psychology: Was Woods that desperate to please his father? Wouldn’t Tiger have been better off in a domestic-warfare simulator?
In any case, he hasn’t compiled much of a record at the 7,381-yard, par-72 Bay Hill since it was redesigned in 2009, but then he didn’t play there in 2010. He was still in hiding as his double life was made public. Last year, Woods was still fighting his new swing and never contended. He tied for 24th in windy conditions, as did Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson is also back this week, still looking to win at Bay Hill for the first time since ’97. Els has won there twice, most recently in 2010, and is coming off a solid performance at the Transitions that was marred by an ugly finish. He missed a five-foot birdie putt on 16, bogeyed 17, and missed a four-footer on 18 to finish one shot outside the sudden-death playoff -- and steaming mad.
Luke Donald, who won the playoff to reclaim the No. 1 ranking, is not at Bay Hill, and neither is No. 2 McIlroy, nor No. 3 Lee Westwood.
Still, the presence of Woods and Mickelson ought to be enough to keep Palmer’s baby in the spotlight. Woods, who was solid at the Tavistock, is again playing the type of golf that made him famous until 2009, when he last won on the PGA Tour. Mickelson, who will play with Cadillac winner Justin Rose and Webb Simpson in the group behind Tiger, won at Pebble Beach with a final-round 64 last month.
Both marquee players, and many others, will have at least one eye on Augusta National and the fast-approaching first major of 2012.
Bubba Watson contended at Bay Hill last year until shooting a final-round 78 in the wind and cold, and he returns this week on the heels of a near-miss at the Cadillac. He leads the Tour in greens in regulation. His pal Rickie Fowler was also in the mix at Bay Hill a year ago, but he too succumbed on the final day, carding a 78 to finish T30th.
Others to watch include Sang-Moon Bae, T2 at the Transitions; Sergio Garcia, who was eighth at Bay Hill a year ago; and Jim Furyk, another Transitions co-runner-up, who finished T9 at Bay Hill in ’11.
If we are treated to the Woods who showed up for the final round of the Honda Classic, then none of them will matter at all, but as the Tiger story continues to turn, there is no bigger “if” in sports.
Seniors also eyeing Augusta
Ian Woosnam is among those in the field as the Champions tour heads south to the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi. The wee Woosie, who won the Masters in 1991, got into the field via a sponsor’s exemption. Fred Couples, the ’92 Masters champion, will play in Biloxi before heading to the Shell Houston Open. Both men will play Augusta.
Putting guru Stan Utley tied for 12th in his Champions tour debut at the Toshiba Classic, won by Loren Roberts last weekend. Tom Pernice Jr., who at 52 became the oldest player to earn exempt status on the PGA Tour by finishing in the top 125 (Pernice was 121st on last year’s money list) will make his first Champions start of 2012 in Biloxi.
Jim Colbert, 71, shot a two-under 69 at the Toshiba to better his age for the first time since he shot 66 at age 67 at the 2009 Toshiba. He’s matched his age twice, and beat it twice. That’s great, but it’s still not quite as mind-boggling as ...
The stat of the week
According to the number-crunchers at Tour headquarters, 66-year-old Hale Irwin, whose 45 Champions tour victories are the high-water mark for the 50-and-over set, has made more than $1,200 per hole on that tour. He made a measly $142 per hole on the PGA Tour.
No report on how much Irwin would have paid for a second-round victory by his Colorado Buffaloes in the NCAA tournament last week.
Short game: Mike Weir, who gets a rare Tour start at Bay Hill before he heads to the Masters, made the cut at the Open de Andalucia on the European tour last week. He opened with a 68 and finished T52. … With her victory at the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, LPGA No. 1 Yani Tseng became the fastest to reach $8 million in career earnings, in 99 starts over four years, one month and two days. Lorena Ochoa hit the $8 million mark in her first 115 events, over four years, four months and 16 days. … Tseng, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie are among the big names at the LPGA’s Kia Classic, which moves from Pacific Palms outside L.A. back to the South Course at La Costa Resort. … The European tour heads to Morocco for the Trophee Hassan II at Golf du Palais Royal in Agadir. The field includes Matteo Manassero, who is coming off a runner-up finish, and Peter Uihlein, in his first Euro start since finishing 57th at the Avantha Masters in New Delhi last month. … The Nationwide tour launches its 2012 domestic season this week at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open near Lafayette.