'Three On The Tee' tackles top names

March, 20, 2012
Arnold Palmer Invitational week and thinking about the upcoming Masters Tournament seem to go together like iced tea and lemonade. At least here at Numbers Game, they do.

Every winner at Bay Hill since 2000 has gone on to finish in the top 20 at that year's Masters except two -- Kenny Perry (2005) and Chad Campbell (2004). But is success at Bay Hill the best harbinger of Augusta success in the "Florida Swing"?

Trivia question

Tiger Woods has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational six times. Who are the other players to win the event multiple times? (Answer below)

The current stretch of Florida tournaments on the PGA Tour -- The Honda Classic, WGC-Cadillac Championships, Transitions Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational -- has been a before-April staple since 2007. During that stretch, the winner at Bay Hill has finished in the top 20 at the Masters each year.

During that same span, winners of the WGC-Cadillac Championship are 3-for-5 finishing in the top 20 at Augusta. Transitions winners are 2-for-5, while champions at the Honda Classic are 0-for-5.

This week's edition of "Three on the Tee" starts off with a player who is still just hoping to earn a spot in the Masters next month:

Ernie Els: His meltdown at Nos. 17 and 18 Sunday at the Transitions Championship wasn't the most painful to witness on the PGA Tour in 2012 (see: Stanley, Kyle) but should Els not make the field at Augusta this year, it might end up being the most notorious.

Els, who has been in the Masters field every year since 1994, led by one stroke with two holes to play at Innisbrook. He finished bogey-bogey to miss the four-man playoff by a single stroke, missing a putt of 4 feet, 2 inches on the 18th green for par.

If you've paid attention to The Big Easy over the past few years, you know that he's struggled with shorter putts. Els now ranks 158th in putting inside 10 feet on the PGA Tour this year, and 146th on putts between 4-8 feet. Last year, he was even worse -- 180th inside 10 feet, and 183rd from 4-8 feet.

In 2010, when he won twice on the Florida Swing, his ranks were 20th and 28th in those categories.

But what better place for Els to redeem last week's squandered opportunity than the site of his last PGA Tour victory? He will try to not only earn his spot in the Masters this week with a win, but join Tiger Woods as the only player to win the event three times or more.

Speaking of Tiger ...

Tiger Woods: We can't be completely certain about the health of Woods this week at Bay Hill, but we can be certain about the fantastic history he has in this event.

Tiger has won this tournament six times. As said earlier, nobody else has won it more than twice. In fact, the only players in PGA Tour history to win any event more than Woods' six wins here are Sam Snead at the Greater Greensboro Open (eight) and Tiger himself at the WGC-Bridgestone (seven).

And if health is concern No. 1 for Woods, the putter is concern 1-A. Over Tiger's past nine PGA Tour stroke-play rounds that he completed (so not counting his withdrawal from the final round at Doral), three have been even-par or worse, and six have been below par.

In the three par-or-worse rounds, Woods has lost an average of 2.4 strokes per round on the green to the field, and missed 10 putts inside 10 feet. In the six rounds better than par during that span, Tiger has gained 1.8 strokes per round on the field while putting, and missed a combined total of just six putts inside 10 feet.

Doral was the week much of the golf world pegged for Tiger's return to the winner's circle, but of course it was not to be. So what about this week? Keep in mind, Tiger is currently second on the PGA Tour in scoring average at 68.53 (trailing only Rory McIlroy's 67.53), first in all-around ranking and first in total driving.

Of course, golf fans are more recently accustomed to seeing Woods hobble into a golf cart than winning. Since Thanksgiving 2009, Tiger has three more withdrawals (3) than victories (0) in official PGA Tour events.

Phil Mickelson: Maybe it's simply his busy early-season schedule in Arizona and California wearing him out a bit, but Phil doesn't have a stellar career history on the Florida Swing. One would have to argue though that his best play in the Sunshine State has come at The King's event.

Trivia answer

Question: Tiger Woods has won the Arnold Palmer Invitational six times. Who are the other players to win the event multiple times?

Answer: Tom Kite, Loren Roberts and Ernie Els have each won it twice.

Mickelson has four career top-10s at Bay Hill in 12 starts, including a victory way back in 1997. At the Honda Classic, Doral (WGC-Cadillac events held there + the old Ford Championship at Doral) and Transitions combined, Mickelson has just two top-10 finishes in 20 starts.

Mickelson isn't going to be the betting favorite this week, though. Since the beginning of 2010, Mickelson has made seven PGA Tour starts in the state of Florida. In that span, he has never finished in the top 10, and his lone top-20 finish came at The Players Championship in 2010.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.



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