McIlroy rests up as Woods and co continue Augusta preparations

Woods gunning for eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational victory and regaining world number one position

Pádraig Harrington will continue to wear the glasses  he sported at the  Thailand Open in Bangkok last week, when he plays in the Malaysian Open this week. Photograph: Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo.

Pádraig Harrington will continue to wear the glasses he sported at the Thailand Open in Bangkok last week, when he plays in the Malaysian Open this week. Photograph: Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo.

Tue, Mar 19, 2013, 06:00

The significance of this time of the golfing year was succinctly summed up by Luke Donald after he finished the final round of the Tampa Bay Championship on the US Tour on Sunday.

Although three WGCs have come and gone, Donald – like every golfer worth his salt – has his eyes on a certain green jacket and, when it was put to him his form was improving and made for an interesting spring, he responded: “Well, the first one of the year is in about three weeks  . . .  so, hopefully I’m peaking at just the right time.”

The first one of the year is, of course, the first Major of the year; and the US Masters is fast approaching. Yet, indicative of how different players prepare in different ways in the build-up to the season’s first Major is Donald – like Pádraig Harrington – is partaking in some globetrotting, by playing in this week’s Malaysian Open, whilst others – among them Tiger Woods and in-form Graeme McDowell – will make their customary stops at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Rory McIlroy?
And what of world number one Rory McIlroy? Well, this is the second of a two-week break for the Ulsterman, who plans to spend some time with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.

The Dane lost to Maria Sharapova in the BNP Paribas final in Indian Wells at the weekend and is competing in the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this week.

McIlroy is scheduled to reappear on tour at next week’s Shell Houston Open, which has moved from its recent slot of immediately prior to the Masters to two weeks before the Major.

No doubt, over the next few days, Palmer will again aim some of his ire at McIlroy for his continued absence from Bay Hill, but the field – which sees the return after injury of Brandt Snedeker – is, even without the official world number one, extremely strong, with Woods’s presence providing intrigue for all the right reasons.

Nobody loves Bay Hill more than Woods, who has won seven of his 76 US Tour career wins on Palmer’s course. A year ago, Woods held off McDowell to claim his seventh Bay Hill Invitational title. As his friend Charles Howell III put it of Woods’s track record over the course, “It’s hard to believe. I haven’t even won that many times in my career! I think a lot of Tiger’s achievements are underrated and underappreciated, and that’s certainly one of them.”

Wood’s win last year marked his first on tour in over 30 months. This season, he has already won twice – both on familiar tracks, the San Diego Open at Torrey Pines and the WGC-Cadillac at Doral – and this week he will be seeking to match Sam Snead’s US Tour record for most wins in a single event. Snead captured eight Greensboro Opens.

Another incentive
Woods has another incentive – if it were needed – this week: apart from equalling Snead’s record, a win would return him to world number one, leapfrogging the absent McIlroy who has topped the standings for 32 straight weeks.

Lee Westwood, who has moved to Florida, will be making a first start in the event since 2008 and Snedeker, who had a win and two runners-up finishes in his first five starts of the season, returns after a five-week absence due to a rib injury.

World number three Donald, a season’s best tied-fourth in Tampa, is the headline act in Malaysia – in a tournament dual-sanctioned by the European Tour and the Asian Tour – where Charl Schwartzel and Harrington are also sharpening-up for Augusta.

Harrington, who has persisted in his use of glasses, produced three good rounds in the Thailand Open, last week’s event on the OneAsia Tour, where he shot rounds of 67-66-75-66 in finishing tied-34th behind winner Prayad Marksaeng. Harrington’s one poor round, the third, was the result of a cold putter but he has moved on to Malaysia with the conviction he is headed in the right direction.

There are three Irish players competing in Malaysia, with Harrington joined by Peter Lawrie and Gareth Maybin.

Shane Lowry, meanwhile, who is hoping to win sufficient prizemoney on the US Tour through associate membership, will – like McIlroy – reappear at next week’s Houston Open. The Offalyman will be playing on a sponsor’s exemption but will have to put his dream of playing in the Masters on ice for this year, as the cut-off point (top-50 off the world rankings not already exempt) comes into play after Bay Hill.

Geoff Ogilvy – 50th and awaiting an invitation – plans to tee up at Arnie’s tournament for the first time since 2008.