By Jeff Babineau, Jim McCabe, Sean Martin - Golfweek Custom Media
The Masters lurks only two weeks away, and Bay Hill, the final stop on the exciting four-event Florida Swing, provides players an excellent exam in measuring the quality of their games. Here's a look at the Florida Swing leading into the API, along with 12 'insider' nuggets the true golf fan should know about this year's field.
OK, by now, if you have a television at home, you probably already know this. Arnold Palmer and his family may actually own Bay Hill, but Tiger Woods is definitely on the company payroll every March. The rest of this year’s star-studded field (it’s loaded) should be breathing a nice little sigh of relief that Tiger is staying off-campus for the first time as a pro. After all, he’s won six times in his last nine starts at Bay Hill and has banked a tidy little sum – $5,074,759.53. (Please don’t forget those 53 cents.)
His last two trips around Bay Hill ended in a pair of enrapturing, heart-pumping, adrenaline-jumping, hat-throwing moments on the 18th green, with Woods edging fellow Orlandoan Bart Bryant with a closing birdie two years ago and clipping young Sean O’Hair with another thriller at 18 last March. Both times, Mr. Palmer was there beside the green to witness, doing so with a wry smile on his face, as if he knew exactly how the scene would play out.
Don’t worry about Tiger. He’ll go for No. 7 next year.
Phil Mickelson has had some defining moments at Bay Hill. In 1997, he stormed to a back-nine 30 – highlights included a bold, go-for-broke eagle at the par-5 12th – en route to a closing 65, and he had a message for the tournament host when he walked off the 18th green with a sheepish, boyish grin and a first Bay Hill victory.
“What did you do?” Arnold Palmer asked Mickelson playfully. Answered the then-26-year-old left-hander, “I just tried to emulate you, Mr. Palmer.”
Five years later, Mickelson trailed by one when he attempted a high-risk shot from the right trees on the par-5 16th, his ball splashing into the fronting pond, leading to the first of three consecutive bogeys. Feast and famine.
This season hasn’t started off the way Mickelson would have liked it to, especially considering the momentum he’d built in autumn, when he won the Tour Championship and played a leading role in a U.S. Presidents Cup victory. He failed to win on the West Coast for the first time since 2006, and in his title defense at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral, still was searching for consistency. He’d love to win at Bay Hill again to build gain some confidence before Augusta.
There are a lot of reasons players love playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. One is that everyone seems to have an Arnold Palmer story. Jason Gore told this absolute gem at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he owned the first-round lead after an opening 65.
Gore was 11 years old and a beginning golfer when visiting family in Pittsburgh one summer, and he and his mom decided to take a drive over to Latrobe Country Club.
A California kid, Gore remembers being dressed “obnoxiously terrible,” like a little surfer dude. The Gores walk into the pro shop and innocently ask if Arnie is in. He is, and soon enough, The King drives up in his tractor-like golf cart. They take a picture and he signs a card, but instead of a “See ya later, kid,” The King then invites Gore to come and watch him hit balls.
So there on the front tee at Latrobe stands an All-American legend, hitting balls from his leather shag bag, while some wide-eyed 11-year-old he’d never met sits behind him on a grassy slope and watches. That day, young Jason Gore knew he wanted to be a pro golfer.
“That hour of my life changed my life completely,” Gore said.
Gore tied for eighth last year, earning $174,000.
Did you hear about the golfer who along the way to making in the neighborhood of $10 million in four seasons (yeah, we know, it’s a pretty good neighborhood) and winning two tournaments lost his sense of humor? Or was it his perspective? Either case, the 28-year-old fan favorite from Colombia concedes he needed an attitude adjustment after a 2009 season fell far short of his expectations. “Little things can frustrate you. (Finally), I was like, ‘Man, come on, I’m here to have fun.’ I mean, I’m playing golf for a living. A million people would give whatever to be here.” Having won twice at the end of 2008, Villegas expected huge things in 2009, but he fell from seventh to 45th on the money list and didn’t make the Tour Championship. Time for a heart-to-heart talk with himself. “I’m feeling more appreciative of what I’m doing and having fun,” he said. And the payoff? A third-place finish in the Accenture World Match Play, then a rousing victory at the Honda Classic, courtesy of a final-round 68 that enabled him to pull away and win by five.
For those who weren’t hypnotized by the long and graceful swing, there was always something else that stood out with Ernie Els. The man’s short game was something to behold, particularly on the greens. “Best putter on the planet,” caddie Ricci Roberts said of Els, circa mid-to-late 1990s. Great mystery: That brilliant stroke disappeared. Even greater discovery: It returned in grand fashion at Doral’s Blue Monster and with his victory in the CA Championship – Els’ 17th on the PGA Tour and first since 2008 – so, too, did the swaggar that always was part of The Big Easy’s persona. Squandered chances in recent years had put a dent in his confidence (“I didn’t know if I’d ever win again,” he said) and those closest to him thinks the public read too much into his nickname. “Because they call him ‘The Big Easy,’ it’s easy to forget how hard he’s been on himself,” wife Liezl said. It comes with the job, of course, and when he prevailed at Doral, one of the game’s Hall of Fame smiles returned. “It’s really satisfying to do the work,” Els said, “and do the little things, and walk away with a trophy.” With a swagger, of course.
Trying to find the game's next breakthrough player is a popular pursuit of golf fans. Success at an early age is tantalizing because it means a player has the time to try to match the records of the all-time greats. But development in golf is not linear. There is no guarantee that today’s stars will be the best tomorrow.
There are several young players who have put on impressive perfomances this year. Though only seven players in their 20s won PGA Tour events in all of 2009, already five twenty-somethings won this season: Bill Haas, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Camilo Villegas and Derek Lamely (Puerto Rico) through 12 events.
Johnson, 25, won the AT&T Pebble National Pro-Am for the second consecutive year. He could be a good pick for this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Johnson and Sean O’Hair, last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational runner-up, are the only Americans aged 25 or younger that have three or more victories.
There are four PGA Tour players in their 20s with three or more wins – Johnson, O’Hair, Adam Scott and Camilo Villegas. After playing poorly for most of ’09, Scott closed the year with a victory at the Australian Open. Villegas scored a dominating victory recently at the Honda Classic.
Mahan, who’s been tabbed a ‘can’t-miss kid’ since his junior golf days, picked up his second win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, winning by one stroke over another star in the making, Rickie Fowler.
Fowler, 21, making his Arnold Palmer Invitational debut, already has tasted victory at Bay Hill. He won the American Junior Golf Association's ’06 HP Junior Boys Invitational by four strokes.
Word of caution, don’t invite this man to your charity event’s “closest-to-the-hole” competition. Unless, of course, you have designs on splitting the grand prize, whatever that may be. Robert Allenby, you see, is a master craftsman when it comes to the art of ball-striking – which is an inside-golf way of saying the man lays the heart of the clubface on the ball more consistently than most in his profession. You want an exclamation point to that? Consider the recent CA Championship when Allenby made three eagles – one each at a par-5, a par-4, and a par-3. The latter, of course, would qualify as a hole-in-one, but if you don’t see Allenby getting excited, there’s good reason. “That was my 14th (ace) in competition,” said the Aussie. The eagles actually came within Allenby’s first 28 holes, but doing things in bunches is his style. His four PGA Tour wins came in 2000-01 and in 2005 he swept the Down Under Triple Crown, winning the Australian Open, PGA, and Masters. One could assume that his ball-striking prowess was spot on during that impressive stretch.
Having deposited his fifth bag of balls – or was it his sixth? – out onto the practice range at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, Steve Stricker headed with caddie Jimmy Johnson to the chipping area. At least he tried to, only to be stopped by some television media, and that led to a sit-down interview, which led to a session with print reporters, which led someone to say to Johnson: “You’d get to your work stations quicker if your guy wasn’t so nice and cooperative.” Johnson laughed, and while didn’t have to say it, the proper response to that was: “Yeah, but then again, he wouldn’t be Strick.” Which is to say that when it comes to keeping in balance his family, his game, his practice, his media requests, Stricker is a master juggler. The fact he faded from view between 2002-05, but has re-appeared as No. 2 in the world is the ultimate feel-good story. It just takes some getting used to. “I’m comfortable with what I do,” he said. “I don’t know about comfortable being No. 2 in the world, but I’m comfortable with what I do.” The Arnold Palmer Invitational often coincides with the family's school break, but this week Stricker returns to Bay Hill for the first time since 2005. He had early success at the event (top 6 finishes in 1995 and '98) but missed the cut in his last four starts. Then again, he's a lot different player than he was five years ago.
Scotsman Colin Montgomerie has had a nice start to his year. Europe’s Ryder Cup captain watched three of his players (Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia) advance to the finals at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona – which Poulter eventually won – and has witnessed a surge of great play from the English (Lee Westwood, Casey, Poulter, Luke Donald, Ross Fisher and Oliver Wilson all are in the world top 50).
Now it’s time for Monty to see where his own game stands. He’ll make his first start on U.S. soil since the PGA Championship when he tees it up at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I haven’t had much success at Bay Hill – only one top 10 – but I’m eager to return there and see where my game is,” Montgomerie said.
Montgomerie, 46, an eight-time winner of the European Tour’s Order of Merit, planned to get some pre-tournament work in with his Houston-based instructor, Paul Marchand, before making the journey to Florida. And then he’ll embark on a week of dual purpose – trying to get his own game in order on a revamped Bay Hill course, and doing some scouting for his side for the Ryder matches in Wales this October. Among those Internationals he'll keep his eye on: Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson, Edoardo Molinari, Justin Rose and Anders Hansen.
Winning runs in Byeong-Hun An’s family. An, 18, earned an invitation to the Arnold Palmer Invitational by winning the 2009 U.S. Amateur at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.
An’s parents are both Olympic medalists in table tennis. An’s father, Jae-Hyung An, won bronze in doubles for Korea, while his mother, Zhi Min Jiao, won bronze in singles and silver in doubles while representing China.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational will be the first start of his PGA Tour career. An will also play in the Masters, the U.S. Open and British Open. He also has accepted invitations to the PGA Tour’s Verizon Heritage, Memorial and AT&T National events. He will be a freshman at Cal-Berkeley in the fall.
An, 18, is the youngest U.S. Amateur champ in history, topping a record held at one time by Tiger Woods.
An has some experience with the Bay Hill layout. He competed there in ’07 and ’08 when the course played host to one of the country’s top junior tournaments, the HP Boys Junior Championship.
An won’t be the only amateur in the field. UCLA sophomore Gregor Main was invited after winning the 2009 Southern Amateur.
Arnold Palmer, showing his deep commitment to amateur golf, invites the winners of the U.S. Amateur and Southern Amateur. Palmer won the ’54 U.S. Amateur.
Current PGA Tour players Webb Simpson, Michael Sim, Matt Kuchar and Tiger Woods are among those who have competed at Bay Hill as amateurs.
Arnold Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, will make his second appearance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Saunders, 22, was a fresh-faced amateur the first time around. Now he’s a young professional.
Saunders turned pro last fall, and won on the Moonlight Tour, a small circuit around Orlando. He’s played on a bigger stage this year. Saunders has played in four PGA Tour events, earning money in two of them. His best showing was a tie for 17th at the Honda Classic.
Saunders shot 76-82 at the ’06 Arnold Palmer Invitational to miss the cut. He won Bay Hill’s club championship that year by 17 shots.
Saunders turned pro last year after a promising amateur career. He played collegiately at Clemson, one of the top college golf programs in the country. Saunders reached No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings in June ’06 and was medalist at the 2005 U.S. Junior He’s had a chance to win one prestigious tournament at Bay Hill already – he had a two-stroke lead with one round remaining at the ’04 HP Boys Junior Championship, but shot a final-round 75 to finish one stroke back of Robert Gates, the leading money-winner on this year’s Nationwide Tour.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational’s trophy is one of the most coveted on the PGA Tour. There’s another important prize at stake at Bay Hill – a spot in the Masters.
Any player not already exempt for the Masters can earn an invitation with a victory either at the Arnold Palmer Invitational or the following week’s Shell Houston Open. The top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking after the Arnold Palmer Invitational also earn Masters invitations.
Among players not already exempt for the Masters that are nearing the top 50 are Orlando residents J.B. Holmes and Justin Rose. Holmes started last week’s Transitions Championship at No. 56, while Justin Rose was 59th. Stephen Ames, who nearby at last year’s Children’s Miracle Network Classic, is 61st. Brandt Snedeker, who tied for third at the ’08 Masters, is 73rd.