His long and arduous comeback from reconstructive knee surgery is not quite going according to plan for world No. 1 Tiger Woods.
As you might expect of someone as driven and talented as reigning U.S. Open champion, it’s going a bit better than expected.
“To be honest, I think it’s taken less time to get my feel back for my game,” Woods said Wednesday afternoon at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge as he prepared to defend his title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. “I thought it would take a little bit longer because I didn’t know … how much golf could I play. Every day, I’ve gotten a little bit better, a little bit sharper.”
Woods, who has won Palmer’s event five times, tees off in Thursday’s opening round at 12:55 p.m. with Mark Wilson and reigning British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington. Woods is playing in just his third event this year after undergoing major knee surgery last June following his remarkable U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego.
If Torrey Pines, where he’s won seven times, has been a victory haven for Woods, Bay Hill isn’t far behind on the list of friendly confines. Should he win this week, it would mark the ninth time in Tour history that a player has won the same event six times or more – and the fourth time for Woods, who lives in nearby Windermere.
Not only will he have to shake off whatever remaining rust there is in his game, but he’ll also have to best an elite field of 119 other invitees that features 31 players who have won in 2008 or 2009. There’s also the pernicious Palmer-designed Champions Course, 7,146 yards, par-70, which Palmer was proud to say is “as good as I have ever seen it in my 40-odd years here.”
“The course is in great shape, and if the wind blows like it did (Wednesday), then it’s going to be a real good test,” Boo Weekley said. “You have to hit it good here, that’s for sure.”
“It could be a lot to handle if you are not real sharp,” said Fred Couples, who won here at Bay Hill in 1992.
Woods, winner of 65 PGA TOUR titles, including 14 major championships, seldom lacks for sharpness when he arrives at Bay Hill. He won four straight titles from 2000-03, and hasn’t missed the cut in his 12 appearances. He’s shot par or better in 38 of his 50 rounds. He fired a 10-under-par 270 last year in edging Bart Bryant by one stroke.
“I think certain golf courses … if you look at my record, certain golf courses kind of fit my eye, and this is one of them,” Woods, age 33, said. “I’ve played well here, and it probably goes back to when I played here in the U.S. Junior (in 1991). I liked it then, and obviously it’s changed a few times since then, but I still like the sight lines. I still enjoy playing this golf course and seeing it. For some reason I feel comfortable here each and every time I play.”
Comfort and familiarity played a significant role in last year’s outcome. In sizing up a downhill 25-foot birdie putt on the treacherous home hole at Bay Hill, Woods recognized the line.
“I remember making that putt (before). That putt I think was a putt I made in ‘01 so I just kind of figured the same thing and it went in,” he said.
When the putt went down, an excited Woods jerked the hat from his head and slam-dunked it onto the putting surface. Interestingly, he could remember the line of a putt from seven years before, but he couldn’t recall taking his hat off with that spontaneous burst of elation.
“I didn’t know I did it. I was so into the moment that, like I said to you guys last year, ‘Stevie, what the hell are you doing to my hat?’ I didn’t know I had thrown it off,” Woods said with a wide grin. “And then I saw the highlights that night, and I didn’t know I went that crazy. But evidently I did. I obviously slammed it pretty good.
“It was a good time; it was a good memory,” he added.
One of many, you could say.