Arnold Palmer Invitational Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
THERE will be an air of sadness and more than a few tears shed at Bay Hill when the Arnold Palmer Invitational gets under way at the course that the late King put on the map. Every past winner of this tournament will tell you that being greeted by Palmer as they walked off the final green was just about as good as it got.
They all know the huge debt of gratitude that they owe Arnie, who died last year and whose memory will cast a giant shadow over the event. Palmer played golf in a swashbuckling manner and loved the way that Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy went about their business.
Tiger Woods is an eight-time champion and should have been here, but is still laid low by injury. It was won in 2010 by Ernie Els, by Martin Laird in 2011, by Woods in 2012 and 2013, by Matt Every in 2014 and 2014 and by Jason Day 12 months ago.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson is giving the tournament a miss as he prepares for the WGC World Matchplay Championship.
As long as he has had no reaction to his rib injury after his comeback at the WGC-Mexico Championship, McIlroy will be in the field, looking to finally kick-start his season with victory in what will be only his third event. He would be the first to admit that it hardly represents ideal preparation for The Masters at Augusta next month. But despite being seriously undercooked in Mexico, there was plenty for him to be happy about. He struck the ball well, consistently outhitting Johnson from the tee - and you can count the number of people capable of doing that on the fingers of one hand.
McIlroy played wonderful golf for two days before it all caught up with him, but he was delighted with his performance. Most encouraging of all was that the Northern Irishman putted well. Surprisingly, it was his iron play that let him down. He will have spent the past few days smoothing out the kinks and will be the man to beat at Bay Hill. Arnie would approve if he should win.
He would also approve of Thomas Pieters, a young man who also hits the ball into the middle of next week. The Belgian was one of a number of European golfers who performed well in Mexico City, thus confirming that he has the perfect game to thrive on the PGA Tour. Pieters seems to get better with every passing week, and it surely cannot belong before he enjoys a breakthrough victory. And precisely the same thing can be said of England's Tyrrell Hatton. He spent a long time losing his temper while doubting that he had the game to win at the highest level, but 2016 was the year that changed all that.
After a number of close calls, he won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews, and has continued to go from strength to strength. It should surprise nobody that his terrific form has continued on the other side of the pond. He has already contended twice and looks absolutely at home in this environment. English golf is in fantastic shape right now, with Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick leading the charge, and that is without considering the continuing merits of the likes of Paul Casey and Justin Rose.
Fleetwood is a slight figure with a very powerful golf swing. Having struggled for form, he went back to basics and is living up to his huge potential. Despite struggling for consistency on the greens, where he has adopted the claw grip, he leads the Race to Dubai by a distance at this early stage of the season. Having won in Abu Dhabi and finished second in Mexico, his confidence is at an all-time high, but Bay Hill may not suit his game.
Rose, on the other hand, adores this place. With thick rough and well-placed bunkers, it requires a strategic approach and there is nobody better on a tough golf course than the Englishman. Rose has made a steady start to 2017 but feels that his best game is not far away. He has also tinkered with assorted putting grips, but when he turns up at a venue and puts on a display on the greens then everybody else had better look out.
Day has recovered from his latest injury and will defend his title, but the magic appears to have gone from his game. Here's a useful suggestion Jason: forget all that closing-the-eyes nonsense and try just walking up to the ball and hitting it. If ever there was a golfer who gets in his own way, it is Day. Too much thinking, too much analysis, too much time. Just get on with it and try to enjoy yourself.
Rory McIlroy. Watch him go this week
Tyrrell Hatton. Has become so consistent
Rickie Fowler. A winner again
Rory McIlroy. Fully fit once more
Tyrrell Hatton. Loving his time in the USA
Rickie Fowler. Good outside bet for The Masters
Tommy Fleetwood. Happy at this level
Ollie Schniederjans. Looks the part
Patrick Rodgers. Great prospect
Justin Rose. Loves this place
Thomas Pieters. Made for the PGA Tour
Hideki Matsuyama. Having the year of his life
Henrik Stenson. Hard to bet against the big Swede
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