With Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and most recently Luke Donald laying out impressive claims over the past few weeks, time is running out for Tiger Woods to avoid heading to the season's first major with the billing of an also-ran.
When he limped out of the final round at Doral ten days ago with an achilles injury, Tiger's bid for a fifth Green Jacket looked a pipe-dream, yet the greatest player ever to pick up a golf club is surprisingly back in action already, heading the market for this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.
We punters have to put sentiment aside, coldly assessing the merit of each player's odds and with Tiger, that task requires constant reconsideration. For most of the time since scandal and injury derailed his career, all the betting value has been on the lay side. Last season he was usually all over the place, yet still started every event amongst the favourites. Then after winning his own tournament against a small field, the hype machine returned to overdrive and all the talk concerned Woods returning to his peerless best. Yet despite excellent opportunities to win the Australian Open, Abu Dhabi Championship and Pebble Beach Pro-am, the new Tiger failed to show his teeth in the heat of battle.
The new rule with Tiger was now to lay in-running and for the place markets - a strategy that has paid dividends. Indeed, I firmly expected to be laying out that argument on Woods for Augusta where, despite all the negatives, he remains a mere 8.8 to win the whole thing. How this could be considered good value compared to any of his main rivals remains beyond me, yet in response to an extremely generous quote of 9.2 this week, I feel compelled to reconsider my punting principles.
Just to clarify - I would not recommend placing a single penny on Woods for Augusta. Whatever his historic record, he hasn't won there for six years and simply doesn't deserve to be second favourite against the world's best. However this week is different for three reasons. First and foremost, unlike the Masters, he isn't up against the world's best. None of the world's top-six, and only two of the top-ten are in the Bay Hill line-up.
Second, different rules apply at Bay Hill. In his pomp, Tiger was virtually unbeatable here, winning the title no fewer than six times. Along with Firestone, Torrey Pines and St Andrews, this was one of the few courses where almost any price represented good value. Even 12 months ago, with his game in turmoil, he didn't disgrace himself in 24th place. His form this time around is vastly superior. At least he was regularly in contention before those recent final-round failures, and lets not forget that on his penultimate start, Woods hit a final round 62 at the Honda Classic to claim second. He wasn't far off contention at Doral either, before injury struck.
Finally, it's all about the price. If he's only 8.8 for Augusta, how can he be 9.2 for Bay Hill against a much weaker field? One must assume it's a reaction to the injury, but surely Tiger wouldn't be risking an outing ahead of Augusta if it were a problem. We used to mark this one down in our diary and the time has come to revive that old, winning mantra that states 'Back Tiger at Bay Hill'.
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