Woods, who has just embarked on his 10th full season as a professional, has competed at Bay Hill every year since he turned professional in late 1996, and the experience has been profoundly rewarding for the 10-time major championship winner. Woods, 30, enjoyed a four-year winning streak at the Bay Hill Invitational from 2000-03, a remarkable stretch accomplished only twice previously in PGA Tour history.
Speaking of streaks, Bay Hill also was the site of the first of three straight U. S. Junior Amateur titles Woods won from 1991-93. . He defeated Brad Zwetschke in 19 holes that began not only a three-year run as junior champion, but also, with three U.S. Amateur titles after that, an unprecedented six-year streak of U.S. Golf Association victories.
Coming off a season in which he won his sixth Jack Nicklaus Award for PGA Tour Player of the Year after winning six times, including his fourth Masters title and second British Open crown, Woods will undoubtedly be among the heavy favorites for the 28th edition of Palmer's prestigious invitational, which is scheduled for March 13-19.
"Obviously, Bay Hill is a wonderful golf course; it's always a good test," said Woods, who tied for 23rd place in 2005 with a one-under-par 287 total. "When you get on a course where you've had some success, it gives you confidence because you know you can do it again."
Begun by Palmer in 1979, the Bay Hill event boasts an impressive array of winners, including Tom Kite, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and the late Payne Stewart. Kenny Perry added his name to the roll last year with a two-stroke victory over Vijay Singh and Graeme McDowell.
No one has had anywhere near the success at Bay Hill Woods has enjoyed. He says the golf course "sets up well to my eye," and the proof is in his record. Among his records is an 11-stroke triumph in 2003 and $2,840,177 in career earnings. Woods has 24 sub-par rounds and 16 in the 60s at Bay Hill, and he has never missed the cut.
Woods was ranked second in the world at last year's tournament, but ascended to the No. 1 position again when he defeated Chris DiMarco on the first playoff hole at Augusta National Golf Club for his fourth Masters title. He went on to claim his sixth Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted stroke average and led the Tour in earnings for a sixth time with a career-high $10,628,024, the second-highest single season total in history. His six victories pushed his career win total to 46 on the PGA Tour, seventh on the all-time list. His 10 major championships rank third, one behind Walter Hagen and seven shy of the record mark of 18 established by Jack Nicklaus. He entered the 2006 season with career earnings of $55,770,760.
Despite all the successes, turning age 30, and settling into married life, Woods is very much the same player who emerged on the scene in 1996 almost as some kind of rock star.
"My whole goal is just to be better," says Woods, who went 24-day vacation from the game and didn't touch a club before making his 2006 debut last week with his 47th career victory at the Buick Invitational of California. "Even back when I was in 2000 going through that great run in 1999, 2000 and so forth, my whole idea was to get better. Right now, I'm trying to do the same thing, get better and each and every day."
Obviously, Woods' immense popularity hasn't disturbed his focus or desire, an attribute he shares with the tournament host. Woods enjoys a special connection with Palmer, who has been one of the most popular players in golf history and an icon among American sportsmen. Palmer, age 76, only last stopped competing in this event but he still enjoys playing as often as possible on one of the PGA Tour's most demanding layouts that he has tweaked over the years.
"It's cool when you can come over here any time during the week and see him out here playing," Woods says of Palmer. "You don't get a chance to see that in any other sport. And I think that's what makes it so exciting is that he's continued to play. He's continued to enjoy just being competitive and he's a great guy to be around. I've had a chance to hang around Arnold from a different perspective. I mean, just the stories that he'll tell you. It's been pretty special because he's pulled me aside a couple of times and we've just talked for hours."
For tickets to the 2006 Bay Hill Invitational presented by MasterCard, or for more information, log on to the tournament web site, www.bayhillinvitational.com, or call the Bay Hill ticket office at 407-876-7774 or toll free at 1-866-764-4843. Tournament proceeds benefit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.