The Month Ahead - March

By: Tony Dear

Despite losing its biggest draw card six years ago, when the Players Championship moved to a more visible spot on the calendar in the middle of May, March gets by just fine these days.

This year, the second World Golf Championship of 2013 - the WGC Cadillac Championship - follows shortly after the WGC-Accenture Match Play in snowy Tucson, and two weeks after that comes Arnold Palmer's much-loved tournament, which respectful players and an adoring public would surely still attend even if it were played on a dodgy muni in the middle of the monsoon season.

As it happens, the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard is usually played under sunny skies on the Dick Wilson-designed/Palmer-enhanced Bay Hill course that "The King" first fell for in 1965 and purchased outright 10 years later. In 1979, after convincing the PGA Tour his course was worthy of a major professional tournament, Palmer hosted the Bay Hill Citrus Open, born of the Florida Citrus Open Invitational, and which would go through several more name changes before finally arriving at its current title in 2007.

Last year's winner was Tiger Woods, who shot four under-par rounds for the first time since the 2010 Masters, and came in five clear of runner-up Graeme McDowell and seven ahead of Ian Poulter. The win was Woods' 72nd on the PGA Tour and seventh at Bay Hill. (He would win his 73rd and 74th titles later in the season to move ahead of Jack Nicklaus and into second place on the all-time PGA Tour victories list. His win at Torrey Pines at the end of January took him to 75, seven shy of Sam Snead's record.)

The world No. 2 will likely be back to defend, but it seems top-ranked Rory McIlroy has elected not to be part of the restricted 120-man field despite the threat Palmer made on the Golf Channel in November when he, only half-jokingly, said the Ulsterman would end up with a broken arm if he passed on the event again.

Four weeks after Palmer's remark, McIlroy's tentative schedule for 2013 showed up on the Internet and, while the Shell Houston Open was a conspicuous addition - he's not played there since 2010, there was still no place for Bay Hill. No doubt, Palmer and his tournament staff are right now hard at work trying to entice McIlroy to make his first-ever appearance in the tournament. Or it could be that McIlroy has met with Palmer secretly to apologize for his ongoing absence and explain why Bay Hill just doesn't fit into his plans. Or the Northern Irishman is still undecided and could surprise Arnie with a last-minute entry.

You can be sure, however, that following his defense of the Honda Classic, McIlroy will be at Doral for next week's WGC-Cadillac Championship, where he finished third 12 months ago, a shot behind runner-up Bubba Watson and two behind winner Justin Rose. There, too, will be Woods, who withdrew midway through the fourth round last year complaining of tightness in his left Achilles, but who will be looking for his 17th World Golf Championships title this time around.

The Puerto Rico Open will be played the same week as the Cadillac at the Tom Kite-designed Trump International in Rio Grande, where George McNeill will defend the title he won with three closing birdies last year. Then, the week before Bay Hill, comes the Tampa Bay Championship, which has endured a somewhat shaky existence since first being contested in 2000.

The tournament* got its first title sponsor in 2003 when Chrysler took it on, but the car giant lasted only four years before calling it quits and being replaced by PODS, which took only two years to decide that backing a PGA Tour event just wasn't the best way to spend its marketing dollars.

Transitions Optical, a spectacles-lens manufacturer headquartered 10 miles from the tournament venue in the city of Largo, took control, but financed its final tournament last year when Luke Donald shot a closing 66 and then beat Sang-Moon Bae, Robert Garrigus and 2010 winner Jim Furyk on the first extra hole.

Part of the reason why the event survives on a schedule - and in a specific place on that schedule - that seems chock-full of well-established tournaments, each jostling for their favored spot on the calendar, is the quality and popularity of the course where it's played. The Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor opened in 1960 and was designed by Larry Packard, who donned the tartan jacket of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), as well as a rather natty red bow tie, to celebrate his 100th birthday at the resort (where he has lived for 45 years, incidentally) this past November.

The last of Innisbrook's four layouts to be built, the 7,340-yard Copperhead, has been called the best PGA Tour course in Florida by Ernie Els, the best on the PGA Tour entirely by Paul Azinger and, last year, the ninth-best course by the 80 Tour pros surveyed by Golf Digest, putting it ahead of classic venues such as Colonial, Spyglass Hill, Firestone South and even Quail Hollow, which has built a great reputation among the players and always attracts a stellar field.

Following Bay Hill and the now six-club Tavistock Cup to be played at Isleworth, it's on to Redstone GC for the 73rd playing of Houston's PGA Tour event - the Shell Houston Open, where last year Hunter Mahan locked up the fifth Tour victory of his career and second of the year coming just a few weeks after his 2 and 1 win over McIlroy in the WGC-Accenture Match Play final. The win in Houston saw Mahan jump to No. 4 in the world, become America's top-ranked player, and virtually nail down a spot on Davis Love's Ryder cup team.

Twelve months on, however, the California native is down to 21st in the world, there are 10 Americans ahead of him in the rankings, and Mahan has no 2012 Ryder Cup memories to share as a miserable second half of the season saw him slide down the standings and out of automatic qualification.

Love, aware of Mahan's rapid decline, chose two veterans - Furyk and Steve Stricker - and young bloods Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker ahead of him, thus preventing Mahan from making amends for the chip shot he duffed in his singles defeat to McDowell at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales. Mahan did make it to the semifinals of the Match Play last week, however, so he may very well be returning to some sort of form just in time for the Masters.

Oh yeah, the Masters . . . not long to go now.

(*The PGA Tour and the tournament's host organization - Copperhead Charities, announced March 1 that Jacksonville, Fla-based EverBank Financial Corp has signed a one-year deal to be the event's presenting sponsor. Everbank also owns the naming rights to EverBank Field, home of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.)

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at

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