Monday 17 December 2018

Woods enjoys upward curve as Bay Hill return beckons

Tiger Woods backed to challenge for another green jacket. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Tiger Woods backed to challenge for another green jacket. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Brian Keogh

Momentum is everything in golf and Tiger Woods will arrive at Bay Hill for this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational like a runaway train following his stunning return to the game this year.

As Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell and Pádraig Harrington struggle to find consistency, Woods is the bookies' favourite for an event he has already won eight times.

Before he returned to action in January, just 10 months after undergoing spinal fusion surgery, the 14-time Major winner was rated a 5/1 chance to win a Major in 2018 with McIlroy 2/1.

Just six weeks and four events later, Woods is already rated more likely to win the Masters than McIlroy thanks to his impressive performance in the Valspar Championship, where his 44-foot birdie putt at the 17th on Sunday left him needing a birdie at the 18th to force a play-off.

He came up short, but he looks like a new man in every sense, reportedly engaging happily with the media in his post-round interviews and even signing autographs for a few minutes every day.

Statistically, he's also exceeding all expectations, and according to Golf Channel's resident statistician, he's now one of just four players ranked in the top 30 this season on the PGA Tour in both strokes gained tee-to-green and strokes gained putting, the others being Dustin Johnson, Alex Noren and Phil Mickelson.

It's little wonder that this year's Masters is already the most eagerly-anticipated in years and with Woods set for his final warm-up before Augusta National at Bay Hill this week, few need to see him capture his 80th PGA Tour win to be persuaded that he's well and truly back.

"I'm really looking forward to next week," Woods said of his return to Bay Hill for the first time since he successfully defended his title there in 2013.

"I hadn't played there in a couple of years because of my back, and I wanted to play there a couple of years ago… I wanted to play one last time before (Arnold Palmer) moved on, and unfortunately I just couldn't play."

Considering his clubhead speed was measured 129.2mph at Innisbrook on Saturday - the fastest swing recorded by any player on the PGA Tour this season - he can't just play, he also appears to be able to hit the ball as hard as he likes.

He's also scorching up the world rankings, and after moving up 239 places to 149th this week (he was a career-low 970th in July last year), he could rise as high as 44th with a win this week and edge even closer to a place on Jim Furyk's US Ryder Cup team.

He's already been named as one of Furyk's vice-captains for September's match in Paris and according to the 'Morning Read' in the US, he and Ernie Els will be announced today as captains for the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne.

Woods hasn't qualified for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin next week and the fact that McIlroy will be the only Irish player involved says it all about where our tour players are ranked in the world right now.

Lowry failed to get the 15th-place finish he needed in Tampa to move into top 64 in the world who are likely to start with the likes of Adam Scott, Justin Rose, and Henrik Stenson just three of the top players who have confirmed they are skipping next week's trip to Austin.

The world No 75 played well for the first two days at Innisbrook and will need to produce that kind of form for four days this week, or in Houston in a fortnight, if he's to move into the world's top 50 by April 1 and make a fourth successive trip down Magnolia Lane.

McIlroy's heavy early-season schedule was drawn up with the Masters in mind, but his form has dropped off alarmingly since he finished tied third in Abu Dhabi and second in Dubai in January.

Down to 13th in the world after being leapfrogged by winner Paul Casey following his missed cut last week, the Co Down man is working with coach Michael Bannon to sort out a timing issue with his swing.

His PGA Tour statistics are certainly alarming - 119th for driving accuracy, 185th for greens in regulation, 124th for strokes gained putting and 180th for proximity to the hole between 50 and 125 yards.

"It's fine margins on golf courses like this and I was just on the wrong side of those margins the last couple weeks," he said.

With Bay Hill and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play to come before the Masters, he still has time to find some form, and confidence.

Irish Independent

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