By Dave Shedloski
The golf course is always one of the stars of any top-flight tournament, but at this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, the Championship Course at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge might deserve further attention and scrutiny than in any previous year.
When the 120-player field takes to the Championship Course starting at 7:50 a.m. today, they’ll be facing an examination that is both familiar and new. And from all indications, they are eager to get going.
Palmer, the tournament founder and host, oversaw a complete renovation of his cherished layout after last year’s riveting finish in which Tiger Woods, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, birdied the 72nd hole to win for the second time in a row and his sixth overall in the event The King started in 1979.
Woods, the No. 1 player in the world, is still on personal hiatus, but the 32nd edition of this prestigious invitational still features a stellar field. Eleven of the 13 tournament winners of 2010 are entered, including No. 2 Steve Stricker, who is returning for the first time since 2005, and last week’s Transitions Championship winner Jim Furyk, who has risen to No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Stricker also is the current leader in the season-long FedExCup competition and the four players nearest in pursuit are also in attendance: Camilo Villegas, Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson and Bill Haas.
Highlighting the past champions in the field are No. 3 Phil Mickelson, who triumphed in 1997, and No. 9 Els, the 1998 champion who won two weeks ago at the CA Championship. Other previous winners teeing it up include Rod Pampling, Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell, Tim Herron, Paul Goydos, Andrew Magee and Robert Gamez.
Still, it’s the Championship Course, which has been stretched to 7,381 yards and features significant alterations to its bunkers and greens, plus all new teeing grounds, which is grabbing most of the attention – and should continue to do so throughout the four-day, 72-hole tournament that offers a $6 million purse.
“The course all the way around is great. Arnold and his team did a super job,” said Paul Goydos, who won the 1996 edition. “I think the biggest factor is what they did to the greens. They have more places to tuck the pins. It’s going to make it a more interesting test.”
“I think they are great changes,” said former Masters champion Mike Weir. “There are more pin placements out there, so it’s more interesting in that regard. It’s playing to its full length; it’s a real 7,400-yard golf course out there, and with some good rough. It’s going to be an interesting week.”
Added veteran Joe Ogilvie: “Arnold did a great job. I thought the last redo was OK, but this is really great work by Arnold and his team. I think scores are going to be lower this year. The parts that have been lengthened almost make it easier, some things, like trees or bunkers where you can get in trouble, aren’t in play as much. Incrementally you’re going to see the scores go lower.”
In addition to the physical changes to the golf course, another factor that goes into the scoring is the change back to par-72 after three years when the Champions Course was converted to par-70. Els, for one, spoke for many of the players in applauding that move.
“I'm glad that, you know, they have actually taken it back to a par 72, which I think will give the guys a couple more birdie chances,” Els said. “I know you've still got to shoot numbers, but it's nice to feel that you might have a couple of birdie chances.”
The distinguished field is not only playing for the first prize of $1,080,000 and 500 FedExCup points, but also for other key spoils. For some, this marks the last week to earn World Ranking points to qualify for the Masters Tournament two weeks hence. All in all, there are plenty of plots and subplots to follow, with the intrigue focused on whether the competitors or Palmer’s new playground rules the proceedings.
“The changes have been very well received, and we’re very pleased with that, but let’s wait to see how it all plays out under tournament conditions,” Palmer said. “That’s when it really matters.”
And what matters starts today.