Lynch: The Tiger King returns to reclaim throne at Bay Hill

Mar 15, 2018; Orlando, FL, USA; Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the 15th hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

Lynch: The Tiger King returns to reclaim throne at Bay Hill

PGA Tour

Lynch: The Tiger King returns to reclaim throne at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO — The last time Tiger Woods arrived at Bay Hill Golf Club to be greeted with reasonable expectations was in 1991. That week, he won the first of his three straight U.S. Junior titles, beating a kid called Brad Zwetschke in extra holes. Zwetschke went on to quit golf, become a preacher and enlist in the Army. Tiger just went on winning. Especially at Bay Hill.

Eight victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational have made this as much Tiger’s place as it was Arnie’s. And while the King of golf has passed, the King of Bay Hill is still very much alive. An opening-round 68 on Thursday served notice of that fact to his subjects—who include the other 119 men in the field.

“I feel way more comfortable in the tournament setting. It’s taken a little bit of time in terms of tournament rounds under my belt to be able to get into this position and I’ve got my tournament feels now,” Woods said.

It took some golf fans just about as long to reinstate Woods on the throne. The first four PGA Tour starts of his comeback were notable for muted expectations, tempered with concern for his health and his errant driver. Let’s just enjoy having him back, was a commonly heard refrain.

Not anymore.

His T-2 at last week’s Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., coupled with his return to a venue he has dominated, have elevated the expectations to the levels of old. After all, if Woods could get within a putt of a playoff on a course he hadn’t seen in 22 years, and which he didn’t remember, then surely he must be the favorite at Bay Hill. Rust be damned. The good old days are back again.

“How many is he going to win Augusta by?” joked Graeme McDowell. “The expectation levels come back very quickly once the floodgates were opened a little bit last week in Tampa. It was six or seven out of 10 last week in Tampa. We’re up to 9.5 now.”

McDowell knows a little something about how those expectations for Tiger at Bay Hill are grounded in history. He tangled with Woods over the last 36 holes in 2012, eventually finishing second, five shots back.

But is the giddiness reasonable for a man so early on a comeback trail?

“It’s tough to say,” McDowell offers. “I spoke to (Brandt) Snedeker out there and he said he looks good. The signs are really impressive. If he wins here this week he’d be hot favorite for the Masters.”

McDowell’s caveat—winning here this week—was not shared by the Vegas bookies, who installed Woods as the favorite at Augusta National even before he finished his morning round. The vapors from Bay Hill have wafted west.

The reality is that this week is just another staging post on Woods’ climb back to the top, not the destination. And nor is it an omen for what might follow three weeks from now in Georgia. Woods has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational four times since he last slipped on the green jacket in 2005.

Form here does not beget form there.

None of which detracts from the excitement Woods’ strong play has brought to the sport.

“It doesn’t say much for the world of golf. We were all saying how healthy things were when he was gone, and now he’s back beating us all up again. Maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were,” McDowell says, laughing. “It’s pretty impressive. And it’s good for us all.”

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