Tiger Woods goes for record ninth win at Bay Hill

Sam Greenwood

What a difference a year makes. By this time last season, Tiger Woods had two PGA Tour wins heading to Bay Hill; this week, the world No. 1 enters another title defense with a bad back and questions about his game.

If Tiger Woods is to reverse the fortunes of a lackluster, injury-riddled start to his 2014 season before heading to Augusta, this week’s PGA Tour contest would seem tailor-made for such a turn-around.

In the unlikely event that Woods decides to add another tourney to his pre-Masters schedule, the friendly confines of Bay Hill, where he has won eight times, also offer him the last chance to get his game in gear and gain some confidence heading into the men’s first major of the year.

Woods, who was last in the public eye two weeks ago when he was wincing, grabbing his back, and finishing T25 at Doral, one of the many venues he has owned over the years, has a comforting history on the layout that hosts this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Arnie’s Place has to be as welcome a sight to Woods as any on tour and he has a chance to regain control of the chatter and earn his favored status leading into the Masters with a strong performance on a course he has conquered four of the last five times he has played it. A healthy world No. 1 chalking up a record ninth Bay Hill win would rekindle musings about Tiger’s legendary intimidation factor as the golf world turns its eyes to Augusta, where he is second only to Jack Nicklaus (sound familiar?) in career wins (6-4).

Consider some other numbers. At Bay Hill, Woods has a 50 percent win rate, having triumphed in eight of his 16 starts. He has a streak of eight consecutive rounds under par, nine top-10 finishes, and a scoring average of 69.73 and an eye-popping score to par of 121-under (according to Golf Channel).

For sure, despite his wobbly status as of late, Woods’ throttling of Bay Hill impresses his colleagues.

"Winning eight of 16 times you’ve played here, that’s pretty much unheard of," William McGirt told Golf Channel ahead of Thursday’s kickoff. "And this is one of those places [including Torrey and Firestone -- seven and eight wins, respectively] he can play ... in his sleep. It’s almost like he can come here and if he’s struggling it’s like it just jump starts him for the year."

Paul Casey was equally agog at Woods’ mastery at Bay Hill.

"That’s [eight wins] something you don’t do in golf and Tiger’s done it," said Casey.

Of course, the golfer whereof they spoke was Tiger then, who, by this time in 2013, already had two tour victories leading up to Bay Hill, and this is now.

As we have seen in 2014 so far, Woods’ storied past on courses he has conquered over the years does not translate to automatic Ws -- or even four full rounds of golf. Exhibits A and B: the missed 54-hole cut at Torrey Pines and the finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship that included a Doral-worst final-round 78 but accounted for his best result of the year.

Mix in offseason practice sessions hampered by nagging back pain, the withdrawal from the Honda Classic with back spasms, and a T41 on a Dubai track where he had won twice, and that adds up to a huge question mark about what to expect from Woods this week.

This much we know ahead of Woods’ next start: Tiger remains No. 1 in the world rankings -- a mark he reclaimed with last year's win at Bay Hill -- and if he is healthy reminds us of why he is the reigning Player of the Year. But that’s a big "if," since, as Justin Ray noted, Woods had withdrawn just two times in the first 13 years of his pro career and four times since 2010.

Tiger addressed the very issue after earning his eighth Bay Hill title.

"If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level ... where I’m contending in every event ... in major championships," he said last year. "Once I got [healthy], then my game turned."

Given such variables,  consider this unlikely stat: Woods will enter this week’s competition ranked 40th in Ryder Cup standings and with just 43 FedExCup points -- three  behind the immortal Bud Cauley and 1,829 back of clubhouse leader Jimmy Walker.

Bud Cauley and Jimmy Walker -- not the usual suspects one has come to associate with Tiger Woods.


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