How can it be possible heading into this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational that Tiger Woods is now heavily fancied by some to win a fifth Masters at the beginning of next month and Rory McIlroy has suddenly been written off by others?
We need to rewind a few weeks to start to answer that question because, and let’s be quite frank here, Woods wasn’t even on the radar in terms of being a potential winner in the season’s first major at the end of January, whereas McIlroy looked a sound bet for Augusta National.
Only time will tell, of course, what we will actually see from arguably the game’s two most recognisable players – certainly among the current generation – in three weeks’ time.
But the latest PGA Tour event, which starts today at Bay Hill in Orlando, is another in a line of fascinating appetisers for the first of the four main courses thi s season.
It’s an event which Woods has won eight times, including on his last appearance in 2013. That he is starting as a clear favourite this week is actually quite astonishing, though not, in fairness to the bookmakers, totally without justification.
The 42-year-old has, after all, been almost back to his brilliant best at times in his last two events, finishing 12th in the Honda Classic then ending up just a shot behind winner Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship, also in Florida, last weekend.
The latter event was just his fourth PGA Tour event since undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April (his fourth back operation in the space of just three years) and the golfing world will be transfixed once more as Woods bids to build some more Masters momentum this week.
“Just keep getting better,” replied the 14-time major winner when asked about his expectations for this week, which he starts in the company of Australian Jason Day and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama in the opening two rounds. “Just keep making incremental improvements and I think I’ve done that.”
For most of his career, of course, it’s never really been about “just getting better” for Woods. Even when he was clearly struggling physically, he’d always talk about how he still felt a win – a “W” as he always put it – was a possibility bit, but now he’s trying not to heap too much pressure on himself and rightly so.
“Each and every week I’ve learned from what I’ve done and, more importantly, I’m learning my body,” he added in a pre-tournament press conference. “I’m learning how I can swing it and not swing it. My recovery, these are all things that are new. So I’m still learning, I’m getting a lot better at it, which is nice, and I think that you’re starting to see the fruits of that now, of the little tweaks I’ve made and I’m excited about it. For me to go from not knowing whether or not I will ever be able to play the game again, to I might be able to play maybe at the Tour level, actually I might be able to make a couple of cuts, well I might be able to possibly get myself into the mix… oh, I’m in the mix.
“And so there’s a process and an evolution to it and it’s been quick, but still I have to say just to enjoy all of this, because at one point that wasn’t even a thought. I didn’t ever even think about playing out here.”
McIlroy was 40-under for his opening eight rounds of the year and looked set to be flying for his fourth attempt to become just the sixth player to complete a career grand slam by winning the Masters. However, two missed cuts in his last four events have left the 28-year-old needing a timely confidence boost.
“It’s hard because, when I play my weeks off or practice, it feels pretty good,” said McIlroy after his early exit in the Valspar Championship. “When I get out on to the course it isn’t quite the same. Just really need to work on a few things just sort of syncing everything up again.”
Those writing the four-time major winner off for Augusta should remember that he’s shown in past that he can almost become unbeatable when things do indeed click. “I’ve shown signs of good play this year already and I just need to see a couple of good scores and I think that will maybe give me a little boost going forward,” he added.
Martin Laird, the 2011 Bay Hill winner, is joined in flying the Saltire in the second staging of the event since Arnold Palmer’s death by Russell Knox.
For both players, it’s getting close to “Last Chance Saloon” in their bids to secure Masters spots and give Sandy Lyle some company at Augusta on the 30th anniversary of him becoming the first British player to claim a Green Jacket.