HOW times change -- Tiger Woods plays at Bay Hill this week, but tournament host Arnie Palmer still expresses "disappointment" at the absence of Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald.
Tiger remains the biggest draw in golf and, after shrugging off a minor back injury scare yesterday, is fit and ready for an event he has won six times in 12 years.
Yet McIlroy ranks with Donald, the man who replaced him at world No 1 after last Sunday's victory at the Transitions, as the hottest players in golf.
"I'm disappointed they're not here, no question about it. They're the top players on Tour right now. I had a letter from Rory seeking my consultation and he told me he wasn't coming," said Palmer, adding with irony: "Of course, that made me feel great -- and if you believe that, I'll talk to you outside afterwards.
"I'm certainly not happy those fellas chose not to come. We're doing everything we can to entice them to play. When I think back to the early years on Tour, I went to the British Open to kind of enhance or create additional interest in international golf.
"To think those people are now the top players in the world, we'd like to have them here.
"We've a wonderful field, but I'm kind of sorry not to have a couple of the top players here ... maybe we can entice them to come in future."
Donald and McIlroy will not play again in public before the Masters in 14 days' time. In fairness to Ulster's US Open champion, he's following precisely the same schedule that got him to Augusta in mint condition last April.
Meanwhile, Woods is joined by a stellar international field at Bay Hill: England's Justin Rose in full bloom after his recent Cadillac success; Sergio Garcia close to recapturing former PGA Tour glories; Graeme McDowell approaching 2010 form; and Ernie Els finding a little more faith in his belly putter in a five-way tie at the top of the leaderboard at this week's Tavistock Cup.
As ever, TV pundit David Feherty's performance on the public address was one of the Tavistock highlights.
The Bangor man ribbed Els mercilessly at the first tee on Monday for the missed four-foot putt at 18 on Sunday that cost the South African a place in the Transitions play-off, saying: "Ernie had an emergency frontal lobotomy last night -- and he'll be putting with a live rattlesnake today."
Tiger laughed out loud when the former Ryder Cup star commented: "Many of us arrived here by helicopter, but he came in an ambulance."
On that theme, Woods ricked his back on Bay Hill's sixth tee yesterday as he stopped in mid-swing following the click of a camera-shutter.
"I felt a pretty good twinge, tried to walk it off and didn't feel very good when I hit one into the fairway there. But after a couple of holes it loosened up and I'm good to go now," said Woods, who has recovered fully from the Achilles strain that forced him to abandon the final round at Doral.
Yet, in golfing terms, his performance at Lake Nona amply demonstrated that Tiger's real Achilles heel is his putter, something he must remedy to have any chance at Bay Hill this weekend or at the Masters.
PGA Tour revamps q-school format
THE US Tour will, from 2013, open its new season in October, immediately after the Tour Championship.
Meanwhile, also from 2013, Q-School graduates will qualify only for the secondary Nationwide Tour. Instead, 50 PGA Tour cards will be played for in a three-tournament series contested by the top 75 from that year's Nationwide Tour and players ranked between 126 and 200 in FedEx points.
Lowry leads irish hopes in morocco
IRISH hotshots are expected to play a prominent part in battle royal this weekend at the palace of King Mohammad VI of Morocco in Agadir.
Clara's 2009 Irish Open champion Shane Lowry and Michael Hoey, winner of October's Dunhill Links at St Andrews, have both the form and the game to prevail in this week's €1.5m King Hassan II Trophy.
The classic Robert Trent Jones course, situated within the royal palace walls, should also suit Damien McGrane and Paul McGinley.
McGrane got back in the groove at the Open de Andalucia and McGinley shone in the Tavistock Cup.
Ireland off to stunning start
IRELAND hold a five-shot lead going into today's second round of the European Nations Cup following a barnstorming start at Sotogrande in Spain.
Their campaign got off to a flyer courtesy of a superb 68 from Reeve Whitson, who heads the individual event, and rounds of 71 and 73 by Dermot McElroy and Niall Gorey.
Arnold Palmer Invitational,
Live, Sky Sports 3, 7.0
The King Hassan II Trophy,
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