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Bay Hill a bomber's paradise
by Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Each year, in lieu of another boring old trophy, the winner of the Bay Hill Invitational is handed a huge, Excaliber-sized sword that is framed, matted and ready to hang on the wall.

In terms of symbolism, a sledgehammer might be more appropriate, since no other stop on the PGA Tour can claim more heavy hitting, stratosphere-strafing power players among its recent winners.

At Bay Hill, the line between Gods and Generals, or general tour players, more specifically, is growing as pronounced as the gap in their driving artillery.

By way of example, power players Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, respectively ranked Nos. 1-2-3 in the world, have claimed five of the past six titles.

"That's the way golf's going," said short hitting Loren Roberts, who won in 1994 and 1995, before several design changes were implemented. "The writing is on the wall."

In bold type, not fine print.

More than ever, Bay Hill has become a bomber's haven, where players who hoist it high have a distinct advantage in terms of dropping precision shots on the ultra-firm greens. The evidence is hardly anecdotal.

Factor out the big three and not-so-stealthily sneaking in to win in 1999 was beefy Tim Herron, who ranked No. 7 last year in driving distance. Before Woods reeled off three straight victories here, power-ball favorite Davis Love III had won more money at Bay Hill than anyone, thanks to seven top-10 finishes. Vijay Singh, who ranks second in driving distance this year, has seven top-20 finishes at Bay Hill.

The success template is by no means unique on Tour anymore, though the trend is more pronounced at Bay Hill. Players hitting lofted clubs are less likely to be fishing balls out of the back bunker after shots bounce through the green.

"Last year, with the greens as hard as they were, it takes a guy who hits it a long way and a guy who hits it high to win,'' said Charles Howell, a third-year ball masher with a good chance to contend. "No question, when the golf course is set up like that, it takes a certain type of player to win."

When Roberts won, the course was playing 125 yards shorter than its current 7,239 yards. The greens were re-sodded in late 2001, changing the feel, speed and firmness. Where his short stick once offset his not-so-long stick, it's become increasingly more difficult to make up for any shortcomings off the tee.

"The greens are really rock hard with a lot of undulation," said Roberts, who ranked No. 192 in driving distance in 2002. "It's just a lot easier for the longer hitters to get the ball close to the hole. The greens were more subtle back then and I just hit the ball really well tee-to-green."

This much is certain -- Roberts won't contend this year, because, like several other prominent players, he didn't enter. Roberts, like Love and Chris DiMarco, elected to spend the spring-break week with their families. Too bad, since the greens, installed in mid-2001, are slightly softer after another year of maturity.

"They're still firm because they're not `of age,' so to speak," PGA Tour rules official Jon Brendle said Monday. "But they're different from last year. This year, you can actually find a ball mark. But you'll probably still hear some guys talking about it."

Players who toured Bay Hill during Monday's practice round said the course is in terrific condition and isn't as punitive as in 2002. That should open the door for more mortals to contend.

"Last year it was brutal," said Scott Hoch, a Bay Hill member. "The greens were what made it brutal. They were too firm. This year they are much softer. It will play easier -- not easy -- but easier than last year."

Bay Hill isn't the longest track on Tour by a far piece, but it still has some bite. Including only the courses that regularly host the non-majors on Tour, and Bay Hill claimed two of the 29 most-difficult holes on Tour in 2002 -- hole Nos. 2 and 17, both lengthy par-3s. Toss out the four majors and Bay Hill boasts the 11th-highest cut line since 1995 at an average of .75 shots above par.

Paul Goydos, a shortish hitter in terms of raw power, all but shrugs when he talks about his victory at Bay Hill in 1996, when the weather was perfect and the field was wide open.

"I can't speak for any other years, but the year that I won, the course was hard as a rock and the ball was running (in the fairway)," he said. "We had very little wind. For me, it was an ideal situation for somebody of my length to be competitive."

Mickelson, who is skipping the tournament this year because of the birth of his third child, said course design figures into the equation some, too. Moreover, last year, the areas fronting the greens were soft, which means run-up shots were a no-go option.

"Almost every one of the holes has trouble short, which disallows you to run balls up," he said. "It means you have to fly it on. Because of that, guys who hit the ball high and soft have a distinct advantage. That's what we have seen."

We've seen the last of some players, it seems. Medium-long drivers David Toms and DiMarco were batting balls on the driving range at the Nissan Open last month when Bay Hill's beastliness was broached, prompting grimaces. Both are ranked among the top 13 players in the world, but neither has had had much luck at Bay Hill.

"It's hard when Tiger is hitting a 5- or 6-iron on No. 17, and I have to hit a 3-iron in there," DiMarco said.

DiMarco, homegrown or not, skipped Bay Hill last year and will do likewise this week, instead electing to spend the week with his kids. In five trips, he has missed the cut four times and finished tied for 57th. He admits it's gotten into his head a bit.

"I'd just like to be around on the weekend," he said.

Toms, ranked No. 5 in the world, is another steady player whose workmanlike qualities have gone largely unrewarded at Bay Hill. He has four top-25 finishes in seven tries and has missed only one cut, but it's hard work for those with average ordnance.

"It's a battle to shoot par," Toms said.

Love elected to attend his daughter's horse show this week. But he all but predicted the type of player who will contend.

"It plays more like a major-championship course," he said. "You have to have the total game, so it brings out the top players. It's no secret -- the firmer and more difficult it is, the more the better players tend to appear."

Woods this week is seeking to become the first player in 73 years to win the same event four times in a row. Brute force helps, but his secret is not to push the issue in terms of aggressiveness.

"There's a way to go around that golf course and I've figured out how," he said. "You can't force it. You have to have a plan for each and every shot and stick to it."

The Bay Hill field, annually one of the strongest of the spring, should carry some weight. Goydos cautioned against putting too much stock in the long-ball numbers.

"You can get into trouble when you generalize that aspect," he said. "I look at the guys who have won there the last few years -- Tiger, Ernie and Phil -- and while length is an issue, they also are ranked 1-2-3 in the world. I would think that those guys dial it up every week. I don't think Tiger shows up often expecting not to win, you know?

"Is length the issue or is talent the issue? We have a bunch of long hitters winning, but also a bunch of great players."

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