COMMENTARY | The PGA Tour's annual return to Bay Hill marks the beginning of serious prognosticating about the Masters. So three weeks shy of the season's first major, here are several key questions to consider for those of you dedicated enough to watch golf during the first weekend of March Madness.
Will Tiger Overtake Rory?
Tiger Woods can overtake the idle Rory McIllroy for the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He last held the No. 1 spot in October 30, 2010.
Woods has owned Bay Hill during his career, winning a record seven times in front of the King, and is the defending champion. An eighth win in Orlando would tie Sam Snead for the most victories in the same event. Perhaps more importantly, a win in his last tournament prior to the Masters would continue Woods' run of momentum into his private preparation at Augusta National. The best thing that could happen to Tiger at Bay Hill is to continue rolling the ball with the same rhythm that enabled him to set a career record for fewest putts in a tournament at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.
A Woods victory would give him three wins before the Masters for the first time since 2008.
One more bit of Woods minutiae: You apparently need a Green Jacket to own a certain property in Isleworth. With Woods settled into his own compound on Jupiter Island, defending Masters champ Bubba Watson has purchased Woods' former Isleworth home. Not sure if the sale includes a fire hydrant.
Can Brandt Snedeker Return to Form?
Snedeker is back in action this week after missing five weeks to heal a rib injury. We last saw him winning at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a victory that highlighted four top three finishes in his first five tournaments of 2013.
The reigning FedEx Cup champion claimed Tuesday that his game hasn't suffered from the break. "My golf game feels like kind of where it was, so I'm excited to see what this week holds and the rest of the year,'' he said during a press conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Sneds played so well early in the year that he's maintained the 2013 FedEx Cup points lead despite being sidelined since early February, a span during which Tiger posted his second win of the season. In fact, other than getting routed in Ryder Cup singles, Snedeker has not had a bad week since missing the cut at the PGA Championship last August.
Winning a major is the next progression for Snedeker and if he's completely healthy and back in a groove -- his play this week at Bay Hill will be instructive on that question -- Augusta National could be the place for a breakthrough. He has contended at the Masters before and a hot putter can work wonders on a back nine full of birdie chances.
Snedeker said Tuesday that he stuck to a conservative recovery timetable to guarantee he would be ready for the first major of the year. "The Masters was a concern,'' he said. "Obviously the Masters is not something you want to miss due to injury so I took my time."
Who Will Snap the American Winning Streak?
Perhaps still smarting from their heartbreaking loss at the 2012 Ryder Cup, American players have won every tournament on the PGA Tour in 2013, a streak of 12 straight U.S. wins that is the longest single-season span of red, white and blue dominance since Americans won the first 13 events of 1989. The all-time U.S. winning streak is 16 in 1982, according to the PGA Tour.
The streak speaks to the tremendous depth of high-level talent in the U.S. And it begs the question: Who will step up to end the American run?
Most of my favorites to break through are European Ryder Cuppers who call Orlando their U.S. home base: Graeme McDowell, the Bay Hill runner-up last year who could celebrate a win at his newly opened tavern Nona Blue; Ian Poulter, who must have a chip on his shoulder after losing two matches on the final day of the WGC-Accenture Match Play; and Justin Rose, who has consecutive top 8 finishes in his first two Florida events.
Sergio Garcia has enjoyed similar success with a third and seventh the last two weeks. Although he hasn't played well recently, I see Jason Day returning to form as the Masters approaches. My sleeper pick is Brendon de Jonge, who appears more regularly on leaderboards than any player without a PGA Tour win.
The answers to these three questions at Bay Hill could well tell us who will be driving down Magnolia Lane with a confident stride in their step.
Mark McLaughlin has reported on the PGA Tour for FoxSports.com, the Greensboro News & Record, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News and New York Post. He is a past member of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. Follow him on Twitter @markmacduke.