Blasting into the week ahead, from the home of a King to the LPGA's return to American soil:
Arnold Palmer Invitational
Thirteen events, 13 different winners this season.
Is that good for the PGA Tour?
Does it mean, in the absence of Tiger Woods, there’s impressive depth and a balance of power enhancing the nature of the competition?
No, not according to one of golf’s great storytellers.
Frank Chirkinian, the retired CBS producer who told his stories through a television camera’s lens while directing so many Masters, always believed parity was bad for the game.
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, is it’s always looking for a star,” Chirkinian said. “It’s the only sport where fans will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
The Arnold Palmer Invitational begins this week at Bay Hill in Orlando with the possibility we could have a 14th winner in 14 weeks.
Stance: Woods won Palmer’s event at 5-under a year ago, the highest winning score in relation to par at Bay Hill since Mike Nicolette won at 1-under in 1983. The winning score promises to rise this year with more birdie chances. As part of Palmer’s redesign last summer, the course was returned to a par 72 after playing as a par 70 the last three years. The fourth and 16th holes will play as par 5s again. The course has been lengthened to 7,381 yards from the 7,162 it played at a year ago.
Takeaway: Sean O’Hair hasn’t contended since his tie for fourth at the season-opening SBS Championship, but Bay Hill seems to inspire him. He finished second to Tiger Woods last year and tied for third when Woods won two years ago. With Woods absent from the field, maybe this is the year O’Hair claims the big prize.
Bunker shot: If you believe Chirkinian, the ideal scenario for the PGA Tour in Woods’ absence might have been for Phil Mickelson to win two or three times before the Masters. But Mickelson’s off to a sluggish start after a strong finish last season. Mickelson will tee it up at Palmer’s event this week looking for his first victory this year. This is the deepest the 37-time PGA Tour winner has gone in a season without winning since he won the Bell South Classic by a whopping 13 shots in 2006 and then went on the next week to win the Masters.
Kia Classic presented by J Golf
The LPGA didn’t have to wait long for its first repeat winner this season.
Japan’s Ai Miyazato won the first and second events of the new year. The problem is that it’s nearly April and that’s all the golf we’ve seen from the LPGA in 2010.
Miyazato will be looking to achieve something no LPGA player has accomplished in the 61-season history of the tour when the schedule resumes Thursday at the Kia Classic presented by J Golf at the La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. She’ll be looking to win the first three stroke-play events of an LPGA season.
Stance: The upside to the limited LPGA schedule is that nearly all the stars tee it up every week. No. 1 Lorena Ochoa, No. 2 Jiyai Shin and No. 3 Miyazato are in a field that includes everyone in the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Ranking. Paula Creamer is the highest ranked player in the world who won’t tee it up. She has slipped to No. 11 while recuperating from injury. Creamer is out this week with a stretched ligament in her left thumb, the same injury that caused her to withdraw from the season-opening Honda PTT LPGA Thailand and miss the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore.
Takeaway: This week is more than a strong tune-up for the year’s first major, next week’s Kraft Nabisco Championship. It’s also a qualifier. Anyone who finishes in the top 10 at the Kia Classic who isn’t otherwise qualified for the Kraft earns a spot into the major.
Bunker shot: Michelle Wie is No. 9 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Ranking, which makes her the second highest ranked American in the world. Only Cristie Kerr hovers above her at No. 6. Watch out for Wie out west the next two weeks. She’s taking the quarter off at Stanford and should be able to completely focus on picking up where she left off when she broke through to win in Mexico late last year.
Around the rest of the world . . .
European Tour: For the first time this year, the European Tour actually stages an event on European soil. Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen is the defending champ at the Open de Andalucia in Spain, but 23-year-old Spaniard Pablo Martin is worth keeping an eye upon. Martin grew up playing the Parador de Malaga Golf course that is home to this week’s event. Martin made worldwide news when he became the first amateur to win a European Tour event three years ago.
Champions Tour: Fred Couples will be going for his third consecutive victory on the Tour when the Cap Cana Championship begins Friday at the Punta Espada Golf Club in the Dominican Republic. Couples hasn’t finished worse than second since joining the senior circuit.
Nationwide Tour: Steve Pate will be aiming to extend his record when he tees it up at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open at Le Triomphe Country Club in Broussard, La., on Thursday. He became the oldest winner (48) of a Nationwide Tour event when he won the Pacific Rubiales Bogota Open earlier this month.