Tiger debate rages prior to Bay Hill
And who might play their way into the field at Augusta National in the coming weeks?
Tiger Woods is the two-time defending champion this week at Arnie's place. Woods' health remains in question heading into Bay Hill with the Masters looming a few weeks away.
After this week, Woods likely won't tee it up in competition again for 18 days. That's a good bit of time for rust to develop, but it's plenty of time for him to seek help for that bothersome back.
So what's next for Woods? And what does he need to do to stay on the list of contenders for the year's first major?
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Our scribes dive into those topics and more in the latest edition of Four-Ball.
1. How important is a strong, healthy showing this week for Tiger Woods?
Michael Collins, ESPN.com senior golf analyst: Not important at all. As with Fred Couples' bad back, one good week does not necessarily mean the back is good to go for the future. Can anyone see back spasms coming? Neither can Tiger.
Farrell Evans, ESPN.com senior golf writer: Tiger hasn't had a good tournament in 2014. If he can be competitive and finish inside the top 10 at Bay Hill, it should give him some confidence heading into the break before the Masters. Another week of back spasms and inconsistent play probably won't bode well for his chances of winning his fifth green jacket.
Bob Harig, ESPN.com senior golf writer: More important than how he plays is how he feels. Tiger needs to be healthy, and everything really flows from there. If he's healthy, he can practice, and that ultimately is what will enable him to compete. Figuring that he's probably not been able to practice much, we should not expect a great result.
Kevin Maguire, ESPN.com senior golf editor: It's vitally important if he is to have even a remote shot at breaking that major drought that's closing in on six years. If Woods can't get 72 reasonably healthy holes in at Bay Hill, what kind of shot does he have at a fifth green jacket? At least this week he won't need practice-round work since he's won on this course eight times, including the past two years.
2. Fill in the blank: For Tiger to be a contender at Augusta National, he'll have to ________ this week at Bay Hill.
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Collins: Putt well. The best thing for Tiger's game going into Augusta will be his putting. Last year he averaged 28.85 putts per round in 68 rounds. This year in 14 rounds he's averaging 27.7 and we know at Augusta it's all about the flatstick. One thing he can always keep sharp is the putter.
Evans: He'll have to play four rounds without back spasms and find a way to shoot four rounds under par, something he hasn't done in an event since he finished in a tie for second last August at the Barclays. For him to pull off this feat at Bay Hill, where he has won eight times, he needs to be more consistent with his driver.
Harig: He'll have to be healthy this week. How he finishes in the tournament matters little. It's more about feeling good and getting his game in shape.
Maguire: Not only play four rounds without any serious grimacing, but Woods also needs to get himself into contention so he can feel that Sunday back-nine pressure that has been missing so far in 2014. Nothing can replace competitive pressure when you're under the gun, so barring that, his chances at Augusta will continue to slide.
3. Give us a player outside the top 50 in the world rankings that you think will play his way into the Masters field.
Collins: How about Kevin Stadler and Scott Stallings? Oh you mean guys who aren't already qualified! (I know, low blow for a bad joke.) OK. Ryan Palmer has had a horrible record at the Arnold Palmer Invitational but has fared pretty well in San Antonio, so I think he could play his way from 60th as of last week to inside the top 50 by the time the Valero Texas Open is all done.
Evans: Will MacKenzie. The 39-year-old, two-time tour winner took his fourth top-10 of the season with a tie for fourth at the Valspar Championship. The native of Greenville, N.C., has only finished outside the top 25 once in the nine cuts that he has made in the wraparound season.
Harig: Richard Sterne. The South African is the hard-luck story of the moment, having been bumped out of the top 50 at the end of 2013. He dropped to 65th earlier this year but jumped back up to 52nd after a tie for fourth last week at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He's got two more weeks to try and move into the top 50.
Maguire: Chesson Hadley. His win in Puerto Rico didn't get him a Masters invite since it was an opposite-field event, but the PGA Tour rookie followed up the victory with a T-14 showing in Tampa proving he's got a hot hand to continue his rise in the rankings.
4. Pace-of-play issues reared their head again at the Valspar Championship. What are the odds the PGA Tour takes a stand to stamp out slow play?
Collins: No chance. Especially since Kevin Na specifically said in his post-round interview that we should talk about how he had to wait on every tee. Slow play has been an issue so long, I bet the King of Scotland complained at the pace of play and no one was beheaded. You think the tour is going to start now? Want to buy a bridge in Brooklyn? I'm selling cheap!
Evans: The tour doesn't want to impose stroke penalties for slow play that could change the outcome of a tournament or impact a player's chances of making a cut. The tour's aim is to monitor the issue and make sure players stay in position and when they get bad times warn them of the consequences. The tour will never end slow play, unless they have some kind of play clock with a buzzer on every hole. And that's never going to happen.
Harig: It remains the longest of long shots. The PGA Tour has rules that allow for 1-shot penalties, but it never takes that step, as was the case on Saturday with Kevin Na. One warning followed by a bad time at any point the rest of the season should be enough to bring a penalty, and it would serve as a huge deterrent. But it never happens.
Maguire: I'll go 500-to-1. Until there are punitive penalties that change the playing habits of PGA Tour golfers, nothing will change. A $5,000 fine after your 19th warning doesn't mean much to guys who are playing in tournaments with $6 million purses. The guys who are slow (and everyone on tour knows who they are, even if the folks in Ponte Vedra Beach won't release the data) hold the upper hand and nothing will change unless there is a groundswell of support for such action by the players themselves.