Biggest Storylines Heading into the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Anything that has Arnold Palmer's name associated with it is something special just because of whom Palmer is in the game of golf.
And that's why his tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., has become such a special event as Palmer advances in age. Just like players used to do when they played in the tournament named after Byron Nelson (the Byron Nelson Classic), this is an opportunity to pay homage to one of the greats to ever play the game.
But there are also only two more events after this before The Masters, and players love to test themselves on the difficult layout in Orlando.
There is, of course, the Tiger Woods drama that is present every time the world's No. 1 tees it up, but this week will be more about the younger and healthier set on the PGA Tour.
Here's a look at some of the biggest storylines in the week ahead.
One Year Ago
The 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational was the latest celebration of Tiger Woods "being back."
He did it in typical Woods fashion. The finish of the tournament was pushed back a day because of weather issues. The victory, his eighth at Bay Hill, pushed him back into the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings.
And by winning eight times in the same tournament, Woods tied Sam Snead's record of doing so.
The only thing he didn't do was post a low, low number. His two-under 70 in the final round was good enough to keep Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler at arm's length, but it didn't "wow" the golf world.
Eleven of the top 20 players in the world makes for a nice feature in any tournament, and that's what the Arnold Palmer Invitational boasts this week.
The top four in the world (Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day) will get together for the first time this year in a PGA Tour event.
Seven of the nine winners on the PGA Tour this year, including Patrick Reed, a two-time winner this season, will be in Orlando.
One player who won't be at Bay Hill is Phil Mickelson, who withdrew for personal reasons.
Arnold Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders, will play on an exemption for the fifth time.
When a tournament has been contested for as long as the Arnold Palmer Invitational has (it started in 1966 and has had several name changes), there are going to be memorable shots and great moments.
Here are a couple:
In 1990, Robert Gamez, a year after turning professional, won the then-Nestle Invitational, beating Greg Norman. He did so with remarkable flair, holing out a 7-iron from the fairway on the final hole to dash Norman's hopes.
In 1983, Western Pennsylvania native Mike Nicolette won at Bay Hill, beating, yet again, Greg Norman in a playoff. Nicolette grew up only 25 miles from Palmer and was thrilled to win his tournament. It was Nicolette's one and only PGA Tour victory. He did post 10 top-10 finishes in an injury-plagued career, but this was his crowning achievement.
Tiger's Back, but Can He Play?
Woods has withdrawn from this year's Arnold Palmer Invitational due to his back problems.
Tiger Woods intends to play this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational where he'll be trying to win for a record ninth time.
The question is: Can he play? Can he even fake that he can play?
You may remember he had to withdraw from the Honda Classic in the final round and struggled mightily with back spasms in the WGC-Cadillac Invitational.
He's been getting treatment with the hope of being able to break his major winless streak at Augusta National next month, but this is the longest Woods has gone into a season without a top-10 finish.
All eyes will undoubtedly be on Woods come Thursday, which is when we'll find out if he's regained his health and form, or is still faking it until he makes it.
In a Charitable Mood
Arnold Palmer and his late wife, Winnie, always had a keen interest in children and the hospitals that kept those children healthy.
Palmer has raised millions of dollars across the country through his charitable efforts and Orlando, Palmer's winter home, has definitely been a beneficiary of that.
Spinning Some Records
Over the years, Arnold Palmer has put more and more teeth into the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, stretching it to 7,419 yards and toughening it with tinkering along the way.
The last three holes, a par five, a par three and a par four, can create dramatic finishes.
The best 72-hole score in the history of the event was recorded by Payne Stewart in 1987 when he finished 264, 22-under par.
In terms of individual performances, Andy Bean (1981) and Greg Norman (1984) share the best rounds on record, a 62.
You many notice that there have been no record-setting rounds in recent years since the course has been made more difficult, another interesting storyline we will watch play out.
Here's a stat that is really difficult to explain: only one European, Scotland's Martin Laird in 2011, has won this tournament since it came to Bay Hill 35 years ago.
Three internationals, Ernie Els in 1998 and 2010, Rod Pampling in 2006, and Vijay Singh in 2007, have won, but just one European.
Another interesting tidbit regarding the Orlando-based tournament: Of the 132 players in the field, 20 of them live in the general Orlando area. Among those are Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Bubba Watson.
Does that give them an advantage of any kind? Don't think so, but it might be worth watching.
Things to Keep an Eye on
- Jason Day pulled out of the WGC-Cadillac Championship two weeks ago because of a thumb injury. He's a serious contender for a green jacket next month and is hopefully over the thumb problem.
- It's getting to be more and more about Patrick Reed as the 23-year-old continues his sparkling play. He's third in the FedEx cup standings and has closed to within 546 points of FedEx Cup leader Jimmy Walker.
- If Reed or Honda winner Russell Henley win this week, they'd become two-time winners in Florida, the third time that would happen in the last five years. Tiger Woods won at Doral and Bay Hill last year and Ernie Els won twice in 2010.
- Woods made $82,194 in his first three PGA Tour events in his rookie year in 1996. In 2014, he's earned just $86,919 in his first three events.
Some things to keep in mind as you watch the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week.
There will be plenty to see and listen to this week at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, and Golf Channel and NBC are giving you the opportunity to experience a lot of it.
In addition to Golf Channel's 2-6 p.m. ET coverage on Thursday, 2:30-6 p.m. ET coverage on Friday and its 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday coverage, NBC will air the event from 2-6 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday. You can also live-stream the tournament action on GolfChannel.com/LiveExtra.
Golf Channel will also be showing special features on the life and times of Arnold Palmer, both on and off the course.
Lastly, Golf Channel will also show its Spotlight coverage on the final three holes at Bay Hill during the weekend rounds while NBC shows the action on the rest of the course.
All four rounds will be covered on PGA Tour Radio on SiriusXM and PGATour.com from noon-6 p.m. ET each day.
And the Winner Is
Originally, I considered my prediction for this weekend's winner to be a bit of a stretch, but I'm not going to say that.
I'm no longer convinced I am out on a limb when I make Patrick Reed my choice to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The 23-year-old is playing as well as anyone this year—he's won twice already and is brimming with confidence.
He's not afraid of the big stage as he proved at Doral and has been pretty consistent. As a matter of fact, only he (twice) and Ryan Moore have gone wire-to-wire to win in the 16 events thus far in 2014.
I think I'll stick with that pick.
Come get him, guys.