Tiger Woods looks like the master of old
GIVEN his recent infallibility on familiar turf, Tiger Woods will romp to his eighth victory in 13 years at the Arnie Palmer Invitational next Sunday and, in the process, replace Rory McIlroy as world No 1.
Following successes at Torrey Pines and Doral, a win at Bay Hill will shorten further the odds against Tiger ending his five-year Major drought at next month's Masters.
Despite an impressive early-season flourish from Tiger's old adversary Phil Mickelson and FedEx Cup-holder Brandt Snedeker, one suspects that the greatest threat to Woods at Augusta National will come from within.
Even in the wake of impressive PGA Tour wins at Bay Hill, Memorial and Congressional last season, Woods pointedly failed to perform on Saturday and Sunday at the Majors.
He seemed to hit the wall once the weekend dawned at Olympic, Lytham and Kiawah Island.
Yet a ring of confidence surrounded Tiger as he purred to victory at the Cadillac Championship. His performance around and, especially, on the greens at Doral, where he took a career-low 100 putts in 72 holes, made him look almost like the Tiger of old. The critical word is 'almost'. Bay Hill will demonstrate whether this was a form spike or if Woods is indeed regaining his imperious majesty with the putter.
Sadly, McIlroy has not been in a position this year to put Tiger's renaissance to its true test. Having redeemed his reputation at Doral and recovered much lustre during a sizzling 65 that Sunday, it's a pity the 23-year-old isn't in the star-studded field at Bay Hill.
McIlroy links up next weekend with coach Michael Bannon to prepare for the Shell Houston Open, his final Tour outing before the Masters. Assuming the Holywood star makes the cut at Redstone, he'll have completed just 12 competitive rounds this year before teeing it up on April 11 at Augusta.
While doubts about his new Nike equipment were summarily dismissed at Doral, might it have been wiser for McIlroy to take a round or four more this week to help bed in the intensive remedial work he and Bannon did on his swing after the Honda debacle?
It's a tribute to his brilliance at last August's PGA and glittering form in the final four months of 2012 that McIlroy is rated as second favourite to Tiger for the Masters.
Even a cursory glance at our chart reveals that Mickelson, so impressive in victory at Phoenix last month, will be Tiger's hottest rival at Augusta in what promises to be one of the most open and exciting Masters tournaments in history.
Snedeker, facing a tentative return at Bay Hill after five weeks resting a rib injury, putted like a god as he followed runner-up finishes to Tiger at Torrey and Mickelson in Phoenix by winning at Pebble Beach. As golf's leading putter, Snedeker must be fancied on potentially mind-bending greens at Augusta. Defending champion Bubba Watson, another left-hander whose natural fade is a perfect fit for many holes at Augusta National, joins Mickelson, Snedeker, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and local publican Graeme McDowell on Arnie's guest list in Orlando.
Revealingly, Tiger's former swing coach, Hank Haney, believes he's "playing much better this season. His distance control with the wedges has improved considerably since last year".
Haney also said: "When I taught him, Tiger missed about 85pc of fairways to the right, even though he'd sometimes say he had a 'two-way miss' going. Over the last three years, that actually has been true. His misses with the driver were 50-50, left and right.
"However, last week was different. Tiger largely eliminated the left-side miss. For any player, eliminating half the golf course is a great confidence boost."
Eliminating the left-side miss is a little more difficult for right-handers at Augusta, yet with his self-belief restored, Woods is once again 'The Man' at the Majors.