Tiger Woods has returned to the scene of his prime.
After a one-year absence, the former No. 1 player in the world is back at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard ready to build on his record of six professional victories on the Championship Course here at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
Of course, things are different since Woods won back-to-back in 2008 and 2009. He’s undergoing a series of swing changes with the help of Orlando-based teacher Sean Foley. And tournament host Arnold Palmer has renovated the course on which Woods has dominated, having undertaken a major design upgrade after Woods’ walk-off 72nd hole birdie secured a one-stroke victory over Sean O’Hair.
“It's a very different golf course than what I played in a couple of years ago,” Woods said Wednesday. “Most of the greens have been raised, bunkers are different, and the greens are way more firm. I know that the routing is pretty much the same. But he did squeeze in a couple tee shots and shaped the greens a little bit differently. But as firm as these greens are, and the temperatures where they are supposed to be, and as much sand in the bunkers, it's going to be one heck of a test this week.”
This week’s challenge is made more complicated by a strong field of 120 players, including world No. 4 Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion, No. 6 Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion, plus defending champion Ernie Els. Mark Wilson, the FedExCup points leader and the PGA TOUR’s only two-time winner this year, is also playing, as is last week’s Transitions Championship winner Gary Woodland, who lives in Orlando.
Then there is the matter of Woods’ decision to rebuild his swing after six years with Hank Haney. Two weeks ago in the WGC-Cadillac Championship he posted his first top-10 finish since last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and he went through the entire 2010 season without a victory, a first in his 15 years as a professional.
Consequently, his world ranking has slipped to No. 5 after a long run at the top.
“I've been watching his game just like everyone else has. I feel like Tiger has a golf game that he can come to the surface any time,” Palmer said. “I think that's certainly a possibility here. He likes the golf course. He likes what we've done. I think he's capable of winning any time.”
“The changes are not easy to make,” said Woods, who also won USGA Junior Amateur at Bay Hill in 1991. “I can make a swing change, but as far as understanding what the feels are, that's going to take time. I can make a swing look fine on a camera. But it doesn't work, because I don't know what the feels are. That takes time.
“I’ve showed some good signs of late. The Sunday round at Doral (66) was back to what I know I can do. And then played well at Tavistock, and I've had good practice sessions, so I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.”
He should, given his history here on the 7,400-yard, par-72 layout.
“I do feel comfortable. It's going to be reading the greens properly (this week). That's going to be the trick,” Woods said. “I've played here and won here when they made the last big change, so the greens were firm that year and I played well, so I understand the golf course and where to hit it and where to miss it. It's just getting the reads, because the reads obviously change.”
With a forecast calling for hot and dry weather, the Championship Course could prove particularly demanding. “The golf course is going to be firm, and the rough is going to be tough. You hear this all the time, but fairways and greens may be more important this week than it's been in a long time on the TOUR,” Palmer said.
A supreme challenge didn’t seem to bother Els, who also won here in 1998.
“Hey, bring it on. It will be great to play in really good weather,” said the big South African, whose victory last year came on Monday because of a weather delay. “I played here back in 1993 when Arnold gave me an invitation to come and play, and I played with him. I remember he made the cut that year. I missed the cut, and I've never played in weather quite like that. I thought Florida was a great place for weather, but I think that year, we almost had snow coming down.
“So to play in heat will be great. The golf course will change, it will play a lot firmer. I remember last year, even the greens were quite firm. Depends on if we have wind with warm weather, it will be really difficult, because the greens will get so difficult, and this course is quite long. If it there's no wind, the guys will find a way to score. I think scoring could be good this week.”