With young guns Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed giving the Arnold Palmer Invitational a miss following Sunday’s playoff dramatics in the Valspar Championship, it’s over to Rory McIlroy to put his recent frustrations behind him an reassert himself on his debut at Bay Hill.
With Reed a potential rival at Augusta National next month despite the continuing controversy surrounding his behaviour as a college player and Valspar winner Spieth making no secret of the fact that he’s gunning for McIlroy’s No 1 ranking, it's time for the Co Down man to lay down a marker.
“Right now currently and what I'm really focused on is Rory McIlroy is No. 1 in the world,” said Spieth, who battled Bubba Watson down the stretch in the Masters last year. “That's who everyone is trying to chase. That's our ultimate goal is to eventually, you know, be the best in the world and this is a great, great stepping stone.
“…going into the four Majors of the year, to have closed one out in this kind of fashion is going to give me a lot of confidence.”
McIlroy will be hoping to rediscover the form he showed before he was interrupted by his court case with his former management company — a runner up finish in Abu Dhabi and a win in Dubai.
And while he was poor at the Honda Classic, where he missed the cut, he showed with his share of ninth in the WGC-Cadillac Championship that his game is not that far away at all.
Struggling to turn the ball over at Trump National Doral, especially in a left to right wind, it will be interesting to see if he has ironed out that problem for his first joust with Bay Hill in what will be his final tournament appearance before the Masters.
Only a missed cut in Orlando would raise alarm bells and leave him lightly raced heading to Augusta National in less than three weeks’ time seeking his third major win in a row and the final piece in the career grand slam puzzle.
As he told The Mirror/Daily Record earlier this week:
“It would be something way beyond my dreams if it worked out. I’ll prepare well and put in the long hours but it’s one event after all and a lot can happen over four days. I will of course give it my all to complete the Grand Slam at 25 years of age. I don’t try to put it out of my head. It’s there because of my achievements last year and I’ve had since August 2014, when I won the USPGA, to prepare for what I knew was coming.
“I’ll just be myself and not dwell on the occasion too much. It is a special week but I already know I’ll balance time on the range and a bit of fitness throughout the week. I’ll also relax with a couple of movies and dinner with family and my team."
As for his game and Bay Hill, he said:
“I’ll try to use this great event to tweak a few parts in my game and get myself comfortable for Augusta. It was a bit hit and miss last time out if I’m honest. But after a few weeks in which my game has had a few weaknesses, I feel that I have put enough work in to address some lazy swings and needless mistakes. There will always be work to be done but my game’s very close to where it was late in 2014.”
The field is certainly of Major stature with McIlroy heading a list that includes five of the world’s Top 10 — the top five to be precise — in Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and Jason Day.
Add world No 11 Rickie Fowler, who will tee it up with McIlroy and Day, and it’s as good as it gets outside the WGCs and the Majors.
Ireland has four runners in Orlando with Shane Lowry hoping to build in three Top 25s in three starts this year and take another step towards winning his card.
It was at Bay Hill a decade ago that Graeme McDowell secured his PGA Tour card for the first time by finishing second to Vijay Singh. And it would be a fitting venue for Lowry to do it too, though it remains to be seen if he enjoys the venue.
McDowell has work to do to get his season up and running after what’s been a pretty average run of form, by his high standards, since he qualified for the Ryder Cup last year.
The world No 22 finished tied ninth behind McIlroy in the Dubai Desert Classic but a share fo 36th in the Malaysian Open followed by a missed cut in the Honda Classic and a share of 56th in a 74 man field in the WGC at Doral are results that will have pleased the Portrush man.
As for Pádraig Harrington, the 43-year old missed the cut at the Valspar Championship in his return to action following his dramatic Honda Classic victory.
The putter was to blame as he missed what he calculated were seven short putts in his opening 76 at Copperhead
“I missed the cut last week purely as a result of my putting and in my first round I missed seven short putts,” Harrington wrote in his blog. “I would have to say that it was probably my worst putting round that I can remember.”
For a man who has suffered the yips, Harrington clearly has the ability to wipe the bad memories from his memory banks given the horrors he’s suffered on the greens in recent years.
Tiredness is something Harrington must watch as he gets set for his seventh start in eight weeks.
Little wonder he’s pulled out of the Valero Texas Open next week, opting to spend a few days at home before returning for his Masters build up in the Shell Houston Open.
- Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler
- Padraig Harrington, Rory Sabbatini, Louis Oosthuizen
- Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter, Sean O'Hair
- Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Shane Lowry