ORLANDO, Fla. – The future of Tiger Woods is filled with optimism because of the past.
The next stop on his remarkable road to recovery from four years’ worth of back trouble is the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the tournament he has won a record eight times on a course that feels comfortable to him.
There also is a short history of Woods winning at Bay Hill during various comebacks.
When he was out nearly nine months recovering from reconstructive surgery, his first victory back was at Bay Hill when he made a 15-foot birdie for a one-shot victory over Sean O’Hair. After going more than two years without winning on the PGA Tour while trying to patch his personal life back together, Woods finally broke through at Bay Hill with a five-shot victory over Graeme McDowell.
Six months after Woods wasn’t sure if he would be able to compete again at a high level, he is the betting favorite at Bay Hill. That stems from his runner-up finish last week at Innisbrook, where he was never more than three shots behind in the final round and had a long birdie putt at the end to force a playoff.
He looks closer than ever to winning. He always seems to win at Bay Hill.
If it only it were that simple.
“Just because I won here eight times doesn’t mean I’m going to win this week automatically,” Woods said. “I’ve still got to do the work. I’ve still got to go through the process of getting myself in position.”
At least he knows the course, even if he hasn’t been here in five years.
Marc Leishman is the defending champion, getting up-and-down with a 45-yard pitch shot that rolled out to 3 feet for par on the final hole. In some respects, so is Woods. He won in 2013 by two shots over Justin Rose, a victory that returned him to No. 1 in the world.
Now he is at No. 149, which sounds good only when considering that he was No. 1,199 five tournaments ago.
Las Vegas thinks so highly of Woods, especially after his runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship, that the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has him favored at 6-1 to win at Bay Hill. It’s the first time Woods has been favored to win a PGA Tour event since Torrey Pines in 2014.
“We keep saying it’s surprising, but it’s Tiger Woods, for God’s sake,” said Jason Day, who at 12-1 is the second betting favorite.
Bay Hill will be a different test from Innisbrook, mainly because it requires a little more length off the tee and with unseasonably cool air this week, the ball isn’t likely to travel as far. Day was explaining the difference when he looked over to the right at a TV screen showing – who else? – Woods.
Woods is everywhere this week. He has a long list of highlights at Bay Hill, mostly birdie putts on the 18th hole to beat everyone from Phil Mickelson to Bart Bryant. He won in 2003 by 11 shots while coping with dry heaves from food poisoning.
Day and Hideki Matsuyama, out since Phoenix with a wrist injury, will play with Woods over the next few days. Rory McIlroy has said in recent weeks that with so much commotion, it costs Woods a half-shot per round. Day sees it the other way, saying Woods thrives with so much attention.
“A lot of people are excited about how Tiger’s starting to show signs in the right direction, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun over the next two days,” Day said. “They’re all out there for him. There are going to be a lot of cheers for him and that’s fine, but I need to put my head down and just try to do my job.”
Woods finished his pro-am round Wednesday and posed for a few pictures with volunteers, even one of their children. What might be more eerie is walking off the 18th green on Sunday without seeing Palmer.
Palmer died in September 2016 as the American team was on its way to Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup. Woods has never been to Bay Hill without being in the King’s presence, starting with his U.S. Junior Amateur title that Woods won when he was 15.
“And then I moved here in `96 and he invited me over here to play in his Monday shootout, and I did and I didn’t like it very much because he took my money,” Woods said. “But I thoroughly enjoyed being around him, being with him and we had so many great times – none more so than last time I won here.
“I’m cleaning out my locker, and he’s over there having his ice tea thing and so he’s just sitting there and, `Hey, grab a seat.’ So we sat down, we just started to BS and have a great time together,” Woods said. “And I’m going to miss those times, for sure.”
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