Tiger Woods in Seventh Heaven

The old adage about certain horses being suited to certain courses could have been coined with Tiger Woods in mind; and it seems the harder the layout—Firestone, Torrey Pines, Augusta National, to name but three—the more he tends to win. Despite his recent inconsistencies, one place where he is still very much at home is Bay Hill Club & Lodge. After the former world No.1 chalked up his 7th victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard this March, <em>Dave Shedloski</em> pondered the secret behind such an inspired record.

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Tiger Woods has enjoyed success on a number of different styles of golf course and in practically every corner of the planet, his hegemony overcoming myriad conditions such as terrain, weather patterns and architectural styles. But no layout has the world’s former No.1 player bent to his will more than the Championship Course at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Arnold Palmer’s magnificent playground in Orlando, Fla.

Naturally, there is no total defense a championship track can muster against a player of Woods’ caliber, especially when his game is in full song—which it was for many years, a fact validated by his record run atop the Official World Golf Ranking. But Bay Hill is truly a special place for the 14-time major championship winner, a course where he has won a record seven times in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

There have been certain layouts to which Woods returns religiously because of his affection for them—and his destruction of them. What first might come to mind is the South Course at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, where Woods has won seven World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational titles. Then there is the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course near San Diego, where he’s also won on seven occasions. Six of those were at the annual PGA Tour event known currently as the Farmers Insurance Open, conducted in January as part of the PGA Tour’s West Coast Swing. His most recent conquest at Torrey Pines occurred in June 2008 when he won his third U.S. Open title despite playing on an injured leg that days later required surgery.

Like Bay Hill, Torrey Pines South surrendered to Woods over four consecutive years. His Bay Hill streak ran from 2000-03 while he won four straight at Torrey Pines from 2005-08. Indeed, you could easily claim that he won five in a row when you throw in his U.S. Open later in the ’08 season.

Only four men have won a Tour event in four straight starts: Woods, Walter Hagen in the PGA Championship, Gene Sarazen at the Miami Open, and Tom Morris Jr. in the [British] Open Championship.

“This course has always been pretty good to me,” Woods says with an air of modesty, almost understatement. “I’ve always felt pretty comfortable at Bay Hill, pretty confident, and a lot of that is because of the success I’ve had there. It sets up well for me. It sets up well to my eye.”

You could say there’s no place like home for a golfer like Tiger Woods. Of course, Orlando used to be home for him until he moved south to Jupiter Island, Fla., last year. But Bay Hill in particular has been like home to him in so many respects, principally as a safe haven where his game can rejuvenate itself and where he naturally seems to flourish.

“It’s not like I play here all the time though,” Woods said. “I play here basically five times a year. For some reason it just suits me. Ever since the U.S. Junior, granted, they have changed this place, but I don’t know why, it just fits. I feel comfortable coming here, hitting shots, shaping it, putting these greens. You know, the greens… I think since I started playing here, three times they’ve redone these greens. For some reason, I just understand how to play them.”

That understanding was on display earlier this year when Woods claimed his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational title in late March. In the process, he was as dominant as ever in winning by five strokes over Northern Ireland’s Graham McDowell.

With a final-round 70, Woods completed 72 holes in 13-under-par 275 for his 72nd PGA Tour title, drawing him up to one win behind Jack Nicklaus and second place on the all-time victories’ list. Sam Snead is still way out ahead with 82 wins, including eight in a 27-year span from 1938-65 at his own personal favorite tournament—the Greater Greensboro Open.

“Oh, yeah,” Woods screamed with delight when the final putt dropped to enable him to post his first PGA Tour win since the 2009 BMW Championship—a victory that had seemed as far away as possible two weeks earlier when he limped out of the final round of his previous start at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral Resort, Miami, Fla.

“It was a rough day. The conditions, the greens were feisty. Pins were unbelievable,” Woods said at Bay Hill after emphatically proving his recovery from this latest injury setback. “I’ve never seen pins this difficult and greens this fast and firm. The wind was blustery, changed directions enough, and the intensity was tough out there. It was a day of survival.”

And still he emerged with another victory, breaking the longest drought of his professional career.

“One win doesn’t mean you’re back, but obviously he beat the field by five and played great golf,” said Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava, who picked up the game’s most precious bag last fall. “Who knows what he’s going to do down the road or if he’ll win 10 tournaments. I think these days it’s pretty hard with all the depth of playing talent currently on the Tour, but he’s definitely back.”

Interestingly, yet not so well known, is that this was his eighth overall success at Bay Hill. Woods, who alluded to this fact earlier, first tasted triumph at Mr. Palmer’s place in the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, which began another streak of six straight years winning a U.S. Golf Association title, a feat not even the great Bobby Jones ever accomplished. He defeated Brad Zwetschke at the first extra hole in that ’91 championship, when he was just 15 years old.

“Yeah, fortunately, I’ve had a few places where I’ve felt comfortable and I’ve played well, and this is one of them,” Woods said. “It’s always been the case that certain golf courses, no matter how I’m playing coming in, I feel comfortable once I get there. This one, Doral has been like that, Firestone, Augusta National [where, like Mr. Palmer, he has won the Masters four times], and Torrey Pines. So I’ve had a few places where I’ve had a pretty good record.”

Along with his seven victories, Woods also holds several other records in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, including his 11-stroke margin of victory in 2003 which was achieved even though he was fighting off the effects of food poisoning. He has earned a PGA Tour record (for one tournament) haul of $6.2 million at Bay Hill. He won wire-to-wire in 2002, one of only four men to accomplish that feat since the tournament’s inception in 1979.

“Bay Hill is almost like playing in his backyard, in a couple of ways, you might say,” noted Mr. Palmer, the tournament host who won seven majors among his 62 PGA Tour victories. “I mean, it practically is his backyard. I always expect him to play quite well. He has that combination of skills that enable him to set himself apart on this golf course, and it’s been pretty impressive. Whenever Tiger is in this event, all I can say to everyone else in the field is, ‘look out,’ because you can probably guess what’s coming.”

What’s coming, usually, is a thumping for everyone else. The collective margin of Woods’ seven victories at Bay Hill over the runners-up is 27 shots, including that 11-stroke romp in ’03. About the only records he doesn’t hold are the scoring marks. Andy Bean and Greg Norman share the course record of 62, carded respectively in 1981 and ’84, while the late Payne Stewart still holds the low aggregate of 264, 24-under-par, that he set in 1987.

Mr. Palmer, now approaching his 83rd birthday, has overseen the execution of many design tweaks to Bay Hill’s Championship Course over the years. The first was in the 1970s when he first acquired the club and turned the course designed by the late Dick Wilson into a muscular, tee-to-green shot-making test. Even more recently, he completed a similarly extensive renovation with his own Arnold Palmer Design Company. Yet despite this ongoing, toughening-up process, Woods manages to adjust to the evolving challenges—ones that always present an examination of all-around proficiency worthy of a major championship. Mr. Palmer is proud of the fact that Bay Hill becomes one of the more exacting on the Tour when the rough is grown in and the greens get firm and fast.

“Winning breeds winning and the more you win, the more you understand how to do it, and you do it different ways,” Woods explains. “I’ve done it with great ball-striking, I’ve done it with lousy ball-striking, I’ve done it with great putting and so-so putting, and sometimes I’ve done it with my short game. If you’re able to do it different ways, it just breeds more and more confidence when you’re put in that situation again. I’ve been lucky over my career to have had successes. And I can only say, I’ve done it before, and…

I know I can pull these shots off and I just keep reminding myself of those things.”

What does winning at Bay Hill mean to Woods? Well, in the previous six years in which he walked out with the famed blue blazer that the winner receives, Woods won multiple PGA Tour titles. In four of those six years, at least one of the other victories was in a major. “I enjoy building momentum off what I’m able to do here,” he says. “And it’s always nice to win here, with Arnold’s involvement in the tournament. We all owe a lot to Arnold.” However, Woods, you might say, owes the King a bit more than most.

Arnold Palmer InvitationalTiger Woods
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