ORLANDO, Fla. – Bay Hill is not the first chance for Tiger Woods to return to No. 1 in the world.
But it might be his best.
A win this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational would allow Woods to go back to No. 1 for the first time since the end of October in 2010.
Woods not only is the defending champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he is a seven-time winner at Bay Hill. Not only does his game look sharp, Woods already has two wins this year, both of them with comfortable margins on the back nine at Torrey Pines and Doral.
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 is 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 floundered 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 clearly is the favorite at Bay Hill considering his track record, even though Arnie's place has thrown him a few curve balls. While he has won seven times, he has failed to crack the top 20 on five other occasions.
The forecast is for scattered thunderstorms throughout the week, making it unlikely that Bay Hill will be as crusty as it was last year. The field is the strongest of the year for regular PGA Tour events, even without McIlroy playing.
This is no longer Woods' home, having move to south Florida. But his memories at Bay Hill date to winning the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1991. He met Palmer for the first time. Woods played Bay Hill as an amateur (he missed the cut) and once played in the King's famous shootout game (Woods says he lost money). If that's not enough, both his children were born at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies.
"This place and this tournament have a very special place in my heart," Woods said.
And this could be a special week, even though he looks at the big picture.
"To get back to No. 1, I've got to win this week — not too complicated," Woods said. "As far as getting back to No. 1 and all that entails, it's not easy to get there in the first place. I don't think people really realize how hard it is to become No. 1 in the world. But then to sustain it for a number of years is not easy, as well. It's about winning golf tournaments, and when you don't win, being in the top five and continue racking up points."
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."