News & Opinion

Let countdown to Augusta begin … please

OK, so Tiger Woods isn’t playing this week, Arnold Palmer no longer is around, coronavirus is up and the stock market is down, but Bay Hill should signal that it’s time to start thinking about the Masters

ORLANDO, Fla. – March is a very important month. It’s not just because of the NCAA basketball brackets, which have surpassed income taxes in the amount of time I spend on them.

No, March matters because it magically turns into April the same way a freshman magically turns into a sophomore (unless he’s one-and-done).

April, of course, equals the Masters.

Arnold Palmer Invitational
Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, enters Bay Hill week with a WGC title to his name this season.

The big event at Augusta National Golf Club was 37 days away as of Tuesday. If it’s not the world’s biggest tournament (and there are a pair of Open championships that claim that title), it is the world’s most glamorous one.

So, here I am at Bay Hill for this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Why aren’t I more excited about the Countdown to Augusta? I’ve got a few theories…

The Tiger Factor. The next person who says or writes that “Tiger Woods doesn’t just move the needle, he is the needle,” must be sent to Cliché Jail and flogged. There is more to professional golf than Woods, but now is when The Artist Known as The Needle was supposed to back up last year’s triumphant comeback with more, More, MORE!

Woods scored his 15th major title at last year’s Masters, had a dreadful summer playing on a knee that needed surgery, then came back in the fall and won his 82nd tournament, tying Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record. His last two competitive rounds were 76 and 77 at the Genesis Invitational. All right, he’s never loved Riviera, but since then he has skipped the Honda Classic, practically in his backyard, and this week’s API, which he has won eight times. He’s not playing, which I interpret as a potential bad omen. Anytime his fused back hurts at this point, I wonder, Is this it?

No Tiger, no Tiger Factor, no Masters buzz … yet. Or maybe it’s me.

The Iced Tea and Lemonade Factor. That drink is called an Arnold Palmer, and this week, the man after whom that drink was named is missed. I mean, really missed.

It was a nice touch when the tournament was renamed in Palmer’s honor beginning in 2007, but when a legend is gone, he or she is gone. Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, can’t replace Palmer. No one can. Jack Nicklaus had a better career, but even he was no Arnold Palmer. There was only one.

This week’s API will try to light a new fire, but it’s an uphill battle. Woods isn’t playing. Four of the world’s top 10-ranked players are competing, including No. 1 Rory McIlroy. Only 13 of the top 25 are in the field. If Palmer, who died in 2016, were still around, that number surely would be higher.

A legend-based tournament has to move on and survive on its own merit sooner or later. The Bob Hope Desert Classic, Nabisco Dinah Shore, Byron Nelson Classic and the Colonial National Invitational (with its Ben Hogan statue as sentry by the steps down to the golf course) have done so with varying degrees of success.

The API has designated ambassadors to liven things up. They are Orlando major Buddy Dyer, former API champion Marc Leishman and country singer Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame). There’s an opening ceremony scheduled Wednesday on the range, featuring the ambassadors. There’s recognition of the new U.S. Postal Service 55-cent stamp featuring a young Arnold Palmer’s follow-through.

Yet it’s not giving me Augusta fever. Maybe I’ll get catch the fever by Sunday. I don’t know. What’s the prescription for catching the fever? If you answer, “More cowbell,” the Cliché Police are coming for you.

The Marquee de Sod. It is difficult to win on the PGA Tour; no doubt about it. We don’t always have a glamour factor at work. Such was the case at last weekend’s Honda Classic, when NBC host Dan Hicks kept reminding viewers that if Tommy Fleetwood won, it would be his first PGA Tour victory … even though little-known Sungjae Im was leading.

Fleetwood and his magic hair are glamour. Im and his translator and his iron-man schedule are not.

This season’s PGA Tour winners aren’t heavy on marquee glamour. Two players have won twice. One is Justin Thomas (Nine Bridges and Kapalua), who is back on track for a hall-of-fame career. The other is Brendon Todd (Bermuda and Mayakoba).

Former world No. 1 Brooks Koepka is pitching a shutout. Current world No. 1 Rory McIlroy’s last victory was the World Golf Championships event in China in early November. That was long before we knew of coronavirus or thought Tom Brady might consider playing next season for anyone but the New England Patriots. A long time ago, in other words.

Adam Scott (Riviera) and Patrick Reed (WGC Mexico) notched nice wins. So did Marc Leishman (Torrey Pines) and Webb Simpson (Phoenix). Woods scored the big one in Japan (Zozo). The rest of our current winners’ list includes Niemann, Munoz, Champ, Griffin, Duncan, Smith, Taylor and Hovland. Give yourself a gold star for each first name you can cough up.

Besides Woods on the winners’ list, we’re missing Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Shane Lowry and Gary Woodland.

While plenty of PGA Tour finishes have been exciting and enjoyable, they’ve been won by players still in the getting-to-know-you stage with the public. It’s something like a first date. Some may prove to be stars – Im, for example. But at this moment, the thought of them doesn’t give us goosebumps. Like some first dates.

The real world. We’ve got coronavirus, a possible pandemic. Even more depressing is the study that said 38 percent of Americans think coronavirus is linked to Corona beer. Sheesh, does no one read anymore?

We’ve seen the New York Stock Exchange spend three terrifying days trying on 1929 to see whether it fits. No amount of Masters commercials with Jim Nantz assuring me about a “tradition unlike any other” makes me feel better when I lost 30 percent of my 401(k) in three days. Correction, make that a 301(k).

Harvey Weinstein was sentenced. Bernie Madoff wants out of prison for humanitarian reasons. The Taliban agreed to a deal. I just wish it had been one with Bernie Madoff.

Palestinian homeland. Pullout in Afghanistan. Terrible flooding in Mississippi. The occasional mass shooting. I bet I’d be happier if I quit watching the news for a while.

Thursday, actual golf starts here at Bay Hill. There will be umbrellas with the familiar red-yellow-white-green logo. There will be birdies and eagles and those dreaded “others.”

Someone will win the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He will receive $1.6 million and change (I’d settle for just the change, thanks) and, if he’s not already in, a spot in the Masters.

Thirty-two days after that, the 2020 Masters Tournament will begin.

Just 32 days? Hmm, I think I just felt something…

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