Arnold Palmer Invitational Preview, Picks & Analysis
A WORLD-CLASS field assembles at Bay Hill for the 40th edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and takes on an added significance with the news that a resurgent Tiger Woods is in the field as he continues his preparations for The Masters at Augusta next month. The 14-time major champion has shown some encouraging form during his latest comeback from back surgery and is rapidly climbing the world rankings again, coming within a shot of winning the Valspar Championship in Florida.
The tournament holds a special place in his heart. Woods, 42, has not played here since 2013, when he shot 13-under 275 for a two-stroke victory over Justin Rose. He has won here eight times — tying Sam Snead for the most wins in a single PGA Tour event. Injuries have prevented him from returning in the interim so he will see this as his chance to defend that title he won five years ago. It will also provide him with a decent benchmark to establish precisely where his game is at. Bay Hill is a testing layout and Woods will know that he needs to find some fairways if he is to have any chance of winning for the ninth time as the rough can be truly punishing.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational represents just his fifth start this year - he has a runner finish, two top-25s and one missed cut in 2018. Woods first competed in 1994 as an amateur and missed the cut, but he won the first of his eight titles in 2000, and since then has dominated on the Championship Course. "I have always enjoyed Bay Hill. The golf is right in front of you," he said. "You have to think your way around the course and be able to hit a variety of shots. You know what shots are required, and then you have to execute."
Martin Laird won in 2011, Woods in 2012 and 2013, Matt Avery in 2014 and 2015, Jason Day in 2016 and Marc Leishman in 2017.
If Woods is to win again, he will have to see off one of the strongest fields assembled so far in 2018, including two golfers who have returned to the winners’ circle after periods in the doldrums. Bubba Watson and Jason Day have both rediscovered their very best form, have victories under their belts and go forward bursting with confidence. Day is a former world No 1 who has suffered some serious distractions off the course, most notably with the health of his mother. Fo much of 2017 he seemed utterly distracted and looked like a man who wanted to be anywhere other than on a golf course.
He finally emerged from the gloom at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, when he defeated Alex Noren and Ryan Palmer in a playoff. His ball striking was magnificent for 72 holes but the key thing was that he started to hole some putts again, just as he did when he won the US PGA Championship and reached the top of the world rankings. Day may be a good bet for The Masters.
Watson’s renaissance has been a surprise as it appears to have come from nowhere. After winning the Northern Trust Open in February 2016, the American left-hander endured a miserable run of form, missing cuts and barely making it to the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the end of 2017. With such an idiosyncratic golf swing, he is always going to be inconsistent but for the best part of two years it seemed that the harder he tried the worse he became. There was even speculation that he may be contemplating walking away from the game. But then he turned up at the Genesis Open, where he produced four sub-par rounds and won the tournament. For good measure, he was ninth during his next outing at the WGC Mexico Championship. It would appear that Watson is back.
England’s Tyrrell Hatton missed out on the WGC Mexico Championship by a single stroke after a ruinous bogey at the 72nd hole. He is a golfer who is hard on himself when things don’t go his way, and on this occasion he had every right to go away and give himself a good talking to. Victory chances on the PGA Tour are few and far between. Twelve months ago he finished in a tie for fourth at Bay Hill after a final round of 72. You can be absolutely certain that he will have been very hard on himself since his near-miss in Mexico. Hatton has conclusively proved that he can compete at this level. What he needs to do now if prove that he can finish the job off.
Leishman will return to Bay Hill with a spring in his step. His victory 12 months ago was one of two he enjoyed in 2017 and he is now riding high in the world rankings. He is one of the most popular golfers on the PGA Tour, a thoroughly likeable Australian with a terrific work ethic. He has endured some personal problem but is now being rewarded for all the work he has done. The Australian nearly won The Open in 2015 and is surely ready to win his first major. A successful defence of this title would set him up perfectly for Augusta.
Justin Rose lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia at Augusta in 2017 and he has been in terrific form for months. At the four FedEx Cup Playoff tournaments last year he finished 10th on three occasions and tied for second at the BMW Championship. He then won the WGC HSBC Champions and the Turkish Airlines Open and tied for eighth at the Farmers Insurance Open. He is one of the best ball strikers in the game, but would be the first to admit that his putting can be somewhat streaky. If he holes a few putts at Bay Hill he will be extremely difficult to beat.
Justin Rose. Ready to win again
Tiger Woods. He couldn’t, could he? Of course he could
Marc Leishman. Beautiful ball striker
Justin Rose. One of the most consistent players on the planet
Tiger Woods. Tuning up nicely for The Masters
Jason Day. Australian is back to his best
Marc Leishman. Class act
Jason Day. Australian is back to his best
Rickie Fowler. Can win anywhere
Tyrrell Hatton. Growing increasingly impatient
Hideki Matsuyama. Slow start to the year
Rory McIlroy. Still searching for his best form
Xander Schauffele. Has every shot in the book
Bubba Watson. Good to see him back
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