While the LIV Golf League will take a three-week break from its opening 54-hole event in Mexico, the PGA Tour will be hitting its pre-Masters stride over the next month.
There will be three designated tournaments in the next four weeks. Up first is the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida, the fourth elevated event of the season with a $20 million purse. Next week, the Players Championship will have a $25 million purse, the biggest on the PGA Tour. After the Valspar Championship, a non-elevated event, another $20 million will be on the line when perhaps the final WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play event takes place at Austin Country Club on March 22-25.
The LPGA will also play one of its biggest tournaments of the season this week at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore.
Here’s what to watch in professional golf this week:
What’s next on the PGA Tour
Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard
Where: Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando
Defending champion: Scottie Scheffler
Purse: $20 million
Puerto Rico Open
Where: Grand Reserve Country Club, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico
Defending champion: Ryan Brehm
Purse: $3.8 million
Three storylines to watch:
The wind is going to howl: Bay Hill is considered one of the PGA Tour’s most difficult tracks. Last year’s scoring average of 73.886 made it the toughest course on the schedule among non-majors; only the U.S. Open (+2.507), PGA Championship (+2.458) and Masters (+1.951) had higher scoring averages to par.
With the weather forecast calling for winds of 20 to 30 mph on Friday and 15 to 25 mph on Saturday, patience and ball striking are going to be key.
“Last year was extremely difficult conditions,” Jon Rahm said. “I had heard that it gets challenging on the weekend, but obviously last year it was a very difficult one. I learned why Tiger has had such success here. It’s a ball striker’s golf course. We need to be very accurate with the irons, and obviously, like everywhere else, you have to be good on the greens.”
No. 1 up for grabs (again): The top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking has already changed hands three times since the start of 2023. Rory McIlroy started the year at No. 1, Scheffler reclaimed it after defending his WM Phoenix Open title, and then Rahm finally reached the top again by taking the Genesis the next week.
There are scenarios in which both Scheffler and McIlroy could reclaim the No. 1 ranking this week.
🚨#OWGR No.1 watch:
These are the detailed scenarios for world No.1 at the @APinv this week… pic.twitter.com/lWpztOUuS3
— Nosferatu (@VC606) February 27, 2023
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it’s the first time there have been multiple changes at the top prior to March. In fact, it’s just the eighth time since 1991 that there was at least one change before March. Greg Norman was involved in three of the previous instances, losing it twice and gaining it once. McIlroy was also involved in the most recent change before this year, when he took No. 1 from Brooks Koepka in 2020.
“It’s been great,” Rahm said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes to it when you get to be No. 1 when the other players have been playing great golf as well. Scottie had a great year last year, Rory had a great year last year, and then toward the end of the year I kind of picked up. And even with Scottie winning at Phoenix, I was able to get to No. 1 right after.”
McIlroy’s chance: After winning in Dubai in January, McIlroy is still trying to find his form in the U.S. He tied for 32nd in Phoenix and 29th at Riviera. Although McIlroy has played in only three PGA Tour events this season, he is 171st in strokes gained: putting (-.446). He ranks in the top 10 in every other strokes gained category.
The reigning FedEx Cup winner has been very good at Bay Hill, where he won in 2018. He has finished worse than a tie for 13th only once in eight previous starts. His scoring average of 70.31 is the second lowest at the event among players with at least 20 rounds played; Woods, who won the tournament eight times, averaged 69.97.
What’s next on the LPGA Tour
HSBC Women’s World Championship
Where: Sentosa Golf Club (Tanjong Course), Singapore
Defending champion: Jin Young Ko
Purse: $1.8 million
Three storylines to watch:
Ko’s defense: Ko won “Asia’s major” in her first start of 2022 and had two top-10s in official majors, finishing solo fourth at the U.S. Women’s Open and tied for eighth at the Amundi Evian Championship. A five-event winner and LPGA Player of the Year in 2021, she missed seven weeks late in the 2022 season because of a nagging left wrist injury and didn’t win again.
Ko, 27, told reporters in Singapore on Tuesday that she spent the offseason in Vietnam, working with her swing coach and trainer. The former world No. 1 player said she’s meditating every morning and night in hopes of becoming a better person and golfer.
“Yeah, all the players [have] high expectations and that makes [it] difficult and tired,” Ko said. “So I don’t want to [put] high expectations [on] myself. Just look [at] the ball and just hit it and just walk and then hit again, that’s it.”
Ko started seeing positive results last week, when she carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to tie for sixth at the Honda LPGA Thailand.
Loaded field: There’s a reason the HSBC Women’s World Championship is fondly known as the Asian major. Nine of the top 10 players in the world are in the field, including all five major champions from a year ago: Jennifer Kupcho (Chevron), Minjee Lee (U.S. Women’s Open), In Gee Chun (KPMG Women’s PGA), Brooke M. Henderson (Amundi Evian) and Ashleigh Buhai (AIG Women’s Open).
“This is Asia’s major, so to be invited to come play here is a really big deal,” Henderson said. “I work hard all year so I can get invited back. So I just always really enjoy the opportunity to be here. There’s been so many incredible past champions. Some year I hope to add my name to that list.”
Not getting comfortable: World No. 1 golfer Lydia Ko has won in three of her past five starts, most recently the Saudi Ladies International, but says she is taking nothing for granted.
“You can never get too cocky about what ranked player you are because it’s so tight at the top,” Ko said. “Everyone is playing really well and you can’t say, ‘I’m going to be there forever.’ When I was younger, I felt like being number one meant that I had to be winning or contending week in, week out, but that’s not necessarily true.
“Everybody is going to have their ups and downs, but you have to manage that by making sure those lows aren’t super-low and you don’t get too high from the highs.”
Ko has 19 victories on the LPGA Tour but has never captured the HSBC Women’s World Championship. She is 69 under in her past eight starts in the event, best among any player, and her scoring average of 69.84 is more than 2 strokes better than the field average of 72.12.
Ko, who got married in December, said her recent life changes have also put golf into perspective.
“It makes a big difference to know that there’s somebody at the end of my round, no matter what I shoot, to support me and just think of me, not [as] the golfer Lydia Ko but Bo-Gyung, my Korean name,” Ko said. “I think that’s something that you’re very thankful for, and I think sometimes it can feel very lonely out there. You have your caddie and your team and your family, but there are things that you kind of just put in and keep to yourself. My husband has been one of the biggest influences in my life.”
A smaller field?
As the PGA Tour continues to tweak its schedule and the number of elevated events in future seasons, the size of fields and cuts in those events are becoming a polarizing issue.
The top players, including McIlroy and Woods, seem to be in favor of smaller fields that would help ensure that the best and most recognizable players are around for the weekend. That would also help secure sponsors and TV ratings, they believe. Some players outside the top 50, on the other hand, are afraid they’re going to be left out.
Xander Schauffele, the No. 6 player in the world, put it another way Tuesday.
“I am always for a cut,” Schauffele said. “Emotionally I’m for a cut. There is an aspect of it, I would say, that’s really entertaining for some. But at the end of the day a lot of people like and a lot of kids like to come see the top players play in the world. If they’ve got a baseball game on Saturday, Timmy can still come with his dad and watch Rory tee up on Sunday, no matter what happens.”
Schauffele said smaller fields also shorten the length of competition days. The Genesis, an elevated event, had rounds suspended because of darkness, despite having good weather in Los Angeles.
“I think it’s also an easier package to sell to the sponsors when you tell ’em that 20 of the top 20 players in the world are going to be there Thursday through Sunday,” Schauffele said. “I think that’s an easier package to sell when it comes to sorting out what makes the best product.
“And then size of field, I mean, you start looking at the issues we start to have on the West Coast. We can’t even finish tournaments on time. We’re waking up at 5 a.m., we’re teeing off earlier, we’re missing windows on television.”
Rory McIlroy to win (+900)
Marks: Rory just loves this place. A winner in 2018, with four additional top 10s, McIlroy has feasted at Arnie’s place. He is top 10 in shots gained on approach and loves putting on Bermuda, which should heal the wounds from the past few weeks.
Willie Zalatoris top 10 (+200)
Marks: I probably would’ve picked him to win if not for him drawing an early tee time Thursday, which means late tee time Friday when the winds are supposed to be bad. He finished T-10 here in 2021 and T-4 a few weeks ago in L.A. He thrives in difficult conditions on difficult tracks, and you have both here.
Rory McIlroy to win (+900)
Bearman: The cream usually rises to the top at Bay Hill, and you can’t go wrong picking any of the favorites. Rahm and Scheffler have been unstoppable, but this particular event is owned by McIlroy. Yes, Scheffler won last year (what didn’t he win?), but Rahn has only played in once (T-17 last year). Rory? He has finished no worse than T-13 in his past six appearances here, including a win five years ago. His putter has been cold the past few weeks, but tee-to-green he’s second on tour. Rory gets back on top with another Arnie win here.
Tyrrell Hatton top-10 finish (+350)
Bearman: Since I already picked one of the favorites above, I wanted to go down the board a bit and find a sneaky player who does very well here. You don’t hear Hatton’s name mentioned much, as he plays both PGA and European Tours, but here is one spot where you should hear it. His lone PGA Tour win was here in 2020 and he was runner-up last year, a shot behind Scheffler. He’s made the cut in all six appearances, so a strong DFS play as well.