Woods continues swing overhaul as eight of world's top 20 tee up at Bay Hill

Woods continues swing overhaul as eight of world’s top 20 tee up at Bay Hill

Tiger Woods is a six-time winner at Bay Hill.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods shot a total of five over par for his first three years of competition at Western High in Anaheim, Calif., but was 29 under for his senior year. He won two of his first three starts at Stanford, fell into a slump that lasted more than a year and then won seven of his last nine tournaments as a sophomore before turning professional.

And so it's gone. While retooling his game under Butch Harmon, Woods made little noise in 1998 and '99 before winning nine times, including three majors, in 2000. Well into his latest swing remodel, Woods enters this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational immersed in another of the dormant periods that have defined his career. The question is whether this one will ever end.

Woods will be grouped with Dustin Johnson and last week's winner, Gary Woodland, teeing off Bay Hill's first hole at 12:56 ET Thursday. Eight of the top 20 players in the world will tee it up at Palmer's Bay Hill Club, none more scrutinized than No. 5 Woods, who last won at the Australian Masters in 2009. He is 35, and squeezes his practice sessions in between single-parenting duties. He's no longer the crowd favorite, not even at Bay Hill, where he's won six times.

He has been a human highlight film here, having made winning birdie putts of 15 feet (2009), 24 feet ('08) and 15 feet ('01) on the 18th hole. He has relegated nine players to runner-up finishes at Bay Hill (four players in 2003 alone), and owns enough of those gigantic swords, which go to the winner here, to sponsor his own team of Somali pirates. Woods brings little into this week besides his fond memories of this 7,381-yard, par-72. His most inspired play of late, routing Francesco Molinari at the Ryder Cup and losing to Graeme McDowell in a playoff at the Chevron Challenge, both in 2010, gave way to more struggles in 2011.

Still, Woods is coming off a T10, his only top 10 this year, courtesy of a final-round 66 at the WGC-Cadillac at Doral. With the Masters 15 days away,the focus will be on his progress under swing coach Sean Foley. While Woods is perfectly happy to accept pedestrian finishes in regular Tour events as a cost of reinvention, this is not so in the majors. He lives for the majors.

It seems increasingly likely that something snapped in Woods when his lost the public's goodwill last year, or when his left knee buckled in 2008, or when his putter left him shortly after that, which combined with his driving woes meant Mozart suddenly couldn't play the black or the white keys. Even his steely powers of concentration have left him, which stunned no one more than Woods when on the 19th hole of his first-round loss at the Accenture he hit his tee shot into a dusty, cactus-filled wasteland straight out of Rango.

Golf continues to exist without Tiger Woods. It is sustained and uplifted by, among others, the colorful Bubba Watson, whose recent $50,000 donation to Japan disaster relief came on the heels of his insistence that he be quoted, in April's Golf Magazine, opposing Augusta National's lack of female members, and his decision a few years ago to own only American-made cars.

Jhonny Vegas and Woodland, two of the nine PGA Tour winners ranked 100th or lower in 2011, have been just as much of a revelation, and the way this year is going, the long-hitting Watson, Woodland and Vegas would seem to be a better bet at Augusta than either Woods or even Phil Mickelson.

Having won at Bay Hill in 1997, Mickelson comes into this week sorely in need of positive momentum. Although he raised expectations with a runner-up finish in his first start of the year, at the Farmers Insurance Open, he's struggled since then. He finished near last at Doral in his most recent start, which was jarring given how recently he'd won there (2009). He looks like a man still struggling to find his vitality amid chronic illness (psoriatic arthritis).

Ernie Els, who won his second Bay Hill title last year, is in the same race to find his game in time for the Masters. Vijay Singh, who didn't play Bay Hill because of a back injury last year, will try to make the cut at Arnie's place for the 18th consecutive year. Andy Bean, 58, will celebrate the 30-year anniversary of his win at Bay Hill by playing the Palmer this week.

Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he won his 18th and final major, the 1986 Masters, but most players of a certain age just don't win the big ones anymore. Tom Watson won his last major at 33, Palmer won his last major at 34, and Lee Trevino won his second-to-last major at 34, and his last major at 44.

Bean's presence might remind some old-timers of what the tournament used to be, the Florida Citrus Open at Rio Pinar Country Club (1966 to '78), and will highlight the difference between the Legends Division and the other, younger men who will most likely reassert their dominance at Bay Hill.

The latter group includes Watson, Woodland, Vegas, Johnson and McDowell, among others, but until further notice it no longer includes Woods. For a player long defined by the extraordinary, the end is looking sadly familiar.

Quiros heads Open de Andalucia field
One of the longest tournament names in golf, the European Tour's Open de Andalucia de Golf by Turkish Airlines, boasts one of the game's longest hitters but not much else. Alvaro Quiros goes for his second win of 2011, which would make him a trendy pre-tournament pick at Augusta.

With many of Europe's stars already Stateside, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel-Jimenez, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal will be the big draws at Parador de Malaga Golf, where 18-time winner Jimenez does the promotion.

"I know that many of the guys are out in America and I understand why they cannot come here," he said, "but to have guys such as Alvaro as well as the last and next Ryder Cup captains in Monty and Jose Maria is special for us."

Kia leads to first major of 2011
The ladies of the LPGA are playing for real money, $1.7 million, at the Kia Classic at Industry Hills Golf Club at Pacific Palms in City of Industry, Calif., and the winner will take momentum into next week's Kraft Nabisco Championship (Dinah Shore), the first major of the season on any tour.

The Kia will feature 22 of the top 25 women in the world, including all of the top 10, and marks the LPGA's return to Los Angeles after a six-year absence.

Nationwide comes to America
After stops in Panama and Bogota, Colombia, the Nationwide tour will commence its U.S. schedule at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open at Le Triomphe Country Club in Broussard, La., near Lafayette.

Your two winners so far: Mathew Goggin (Panama) and Brenden Pappas, whose victory was unofficial because the Bogota stop was called because of inclement weather after 36 holes.

Shag bag
Only Woods and Fred Couples (1992) have won Bay Hill and the Masters in the same year. Woods has done it twice, in 2001 and '02. … Jim Gallagher, Jr., a six-time winner on the PGA Tour who played in the 1993 Ryder and '94 Presidents Cup, will turn 50 Thursday and play next week's Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions tour. … Fred Funk withdrew from the Transitions last week while citing a cartilage injury in his chest. … Palmer launches a new apparel line today — label: Arnie — in conjunction with Quagmire Golf clothing. … Errie Ball, 100, the only surviving player from the inaugural Masters in 1934, will speak at the PGA Museum of Golf at PGA Village in Port St. Lucie, Fla., April 6. Admission is free. … Condoleezza Rice will serve as Honorary Chairperson for the Regions Tradition, the first major of the Champions tour season, at Shoal Creek, near Birmingham, Ala., May 5-8. … Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice will once again serve as host and compete as a pro in the Nationwide tour's Fresh Express Classic at TPC Stonebrae, April 14-17.

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