Published March 21, 2013
ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods has been winning at Bay Hill before he was old enough to drive a car.
"It all started there," Woods said Wednesday on the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he is the defending champion, a seven-time champion and has a chance to return to No. 1 in the world if he can win for an eighth time.
He already has won eight times at Bay Hill if the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur counted. Woods wound up winning against Brad Zwetschke on the first extra hole. He remembered just about all the details, except that his opponent missed a short bogey putt at the end.
Much more clear in his mind was meeting Palmer.
"He was handing out some medals to guys that have played in three Juniors, and there are only a handful of guys that had done that," Woods said. "He was giving those guys medals and I said, 'I'd like to one day play in as many Juniors as that.'"
And he did, winning the next two U.S. Junior Amateurs, and then running off three straight U.S. Amateur titles, and then joining the PGA Tour and taking it from there.
Woods returned to Bay Hill in 1994 and missed the cut, yet even that had a peculiar piece of history involved — it was his first 80 on the PGA Tour. He later moved a few miles down the road to Isleworth, and once joined Palmer in one of his games at Bay Hill.
"Unfortunately, lost money to him, too," Woods said.
And if that's not enough, both of Woods' children were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.
"So this place, and this tournament, has a very special place in my heart," he said.
Woods hopes to rekindle some more memories Thursday when the Arnold Palmer Invitational gets under way. It's his last tournament before the Masters, and even if Woods doesn't win this week to return to No. in the world, he already is looked upon as the favorite at Augusta National. He is the only multiple winner on the PGA Tour this year, with victories at Torrey Pines and Doral, both times building big margins on the back nine.
And his peers are paying attention.
"The one thing I don't think you give Tiger enough credit for is every time I see him tee it up, he hits it on the center of the bat — hits it solidly all the time," said Brandt Snedeker, who has done his viewing on television after sitting out the last five weeks with a rib injury. "That is a very underrated quality. Not very many guys do that. When guys have an off week, they tend to mishit it. When Tiger has an off week, it's not like that."
Graeme McDowell saw it on the weekend at Doral, where he did his best to make up a deficit and Woods always had an answer, winning by two shots. McDowell also saw it a year ago at Bay Hill in fast, firm conditions that made it feel like Sunday at the U.S. Open. Woods closed with a 70 and won by five.
"I think as difficult as this golf course played last year on Sunday afternoon, I watched the Tiger Woods that's won 14 major championships," McDowell said. "I watched a display of discipline. Conservative at times, but firing away from pins. When the golf course gets tougher, the guy is able to slip into a gear where he plays aggressive golf to conservative targets.
"When he's playing well, he's hard to beat. Especially when the golf course is as difficult as this one was last year on Sunday afternoon."
Woods sank to as low as No. 58 in November 2011 before making a gradual return toward the top, getting a power boost last year by winning three times. He went to the PGA Championship with a chance to reach No. 1 by winning, but then he failed to convert a 36-hole share of the lead. Rory McIlroy won at Kiawah Island, and with three more wins the rest of the way, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland appeared to be entrenched at No. 1 for some time.
As McIlroy has struggled this year, Woods has been charging.
Whether it happens this week is of little consequence to Woods. He has long said that winning takes care of everything, especially the No. 1 ranking. He's in no rush. But he is proud of his climb back to at least be in this position.
"We're still getting better," Woods said. "Things are still becoming more efficient. These two wins I've had this year, I've built myself some nice leads, which means that I've played really well, and things are starting to come around and become more efficient day in and day out."
Woods never used to think about No. 1 because he was there for so long, most of the time by such a large margin.
What these last few years have taught him was the importance of good health. Woods missed his first major after winning the 2008 U.S. Open because of reconstructive knee surgery. That ended his streak of 46 consecutive majors, and ended his hope of a record Woods believes will never be broken — Jack Nicklaus competed in 146 consecutive majors from the 1962 Masters through the 1998 U.S. Open.
"That's crazy, isn't it?" Woods said. "Playing 146 tour events is pretty good."
The Nicklaus record he really wants is 18 professional majors, and Woods will have to wait three weeks for the Masters to see if he can make up ground. Palmer hasn't ruled him out just yet.
"I think right now looking at him and watching him play, as I have recently, he looks probably as strong and as good from a golf perspective as I've ever seen him," Palmer said. "I think his swing and his posture and his attitude is far better than it's been in some time. ... I give him a chance to do the record. I suppose that every year it's a little more fleeting, however, and he'll have to really work hard to keep himself up and keep his mental attitude if he's going to do it."