Changes at Bay Hill, starting with no Tiger

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Never have there been so many changes in one year at Bay Hill for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Palmer had the entire crew from his design company revamp all the greens, replacing the sand base 18 inches deep, changes the strain of grass and altering the contours to allow for more hole locations.

The tee boxes were upgraded, and one was moved. The tournament tee for the 15th hole is now located on the other side of Bay Hill Boulevard. It measures 467 yards, eliminating the chance to cut the corner of the dogleg.

The scorecard certainly is different. After experimenting as a par 70 the last three years, Palmer thought it was better for Bay Hill to return as a par 72, restoring the fourth and 16th holes to par 5s to create more excitement at the end of the round.

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“It’s not as quirky,” Stephen Ames said. “The changes are great. It’s more playable for everybody, not just the big hitters.”

All that work to the course, and the biggest change at Bay Hill is the field.

The defending champion is not here.

No one has won at Bay Hill more than Tiger Woods, who knocked in birdie putts on the 72nd hole each of the last two years for dramatic victories. Woods also won four straight times at the Arnold Palmer Invitational from 2000 through 2003.

And when the world’s No. 1 player began practicing at nearby Isleworth this month, speculation picked up that he would return from the sex scandal that has dogged him since Thanksgiving at a course he knows better than most.

That was until Palmer received a phone call last week.

“He called me one evening and we had a conversation,” Palmer said. “And the situation was that he didn’t feel his game was sharp enough to come and compete that soon, so he told me that he was not going to play. He would go to Augusta first.”

Palmer said he was “disappointed,” although it was hard to gauge just how much.

For Woods to make his return at Bay Hill could have been a logistical nightmare, especially on a course in a residential neighborhood that is not gated, with several holes lined with homes where people routinely gather in the backyard to watch golfers go by.

Space is limited to the media, although tournament officials had a plan in place.

No worries, now.

It will be another PGA Tour event without Woods, another stronger field that gets overlooked because he’s not around.

Ernie Els, coming off his victory two weeks ago at the World Golf Championship in Doral, has returned to Bay Hill for the first time in three years. The Big Easy only has two top 10s at Bay Hill, one of them memorable. In a 36-hole Sunday caused by a rain delay, he spent some 10 hours with Woods and Davis Love III and beat Woods by 10 shots.

Steve Stricker, No. 2 in the world, returns for the first time since 2005, mainly because his daughter’s spring break in Wisconsin changed by a week.

Eleven of the 13 winners on the PGA Tour are at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and that doesn’t include Phil Mickelson, who won this tournament in 1997 and seems to challenge every time he plays.

Even so, the talk has been about Woods. More of that has to do with his announcement last week that he will return to competition for the first time since the Nov. 27 car accident, which set off revelations of infidelity. His absence also means one less player to beat, and while Woods is a six-time winner, he had five other Bay Hill appearances when he didn’t finish inside the top 20.

The focus often shifts to the Masters this time of the year no matter what’s going on with Woods. Bay Hill always has been part of the critical buildup to the first major of the year.

But with Palmer as the host, and a course the players might find more agreeable, the tournament is getting its equal share of attention. That’s the way Stewart Cink is looking at it.

“I would like to drive the ball really well here and putt really well here and then I can go home saying, ‘I can’t wait to play in the Masters.’ And then I have to wait seven days, and that will probably go away,” he said.

“So I just want to play Bay Hill for Bay Hill, and try to have a great finish here, maybe win, and just get myself some confidence going into the Masters.”

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