A new cast of stars, even when Woods was playing

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Tiger Woods was a large part of the conversation on the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

And he’s not even playing.

Woods is missing Bay Hill for only the second time in his career when the tournament starts Thursday on a course that Palmer said is in the best shape ever. Woods has won eight times, including the last two years, but he called the 84-year-old host on Tuesday to say persistent back pain will keep him from playing.

”He didn’t tell me how bad his back is. I don’t think he knows how bad his back is,” Palmer said. ”I think he’s listening to the doctors. And he mentioned that they’re saying that he needs to give it a bit of a rest and see if he can work it out. He was very nice. And I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play. And I appreciate that and the fact that he called.

”I think he wanted to play golf this week,” Palmer said. ”I think that he needs to take (time) – whether it’s this week, next week or the following week – to get ready for Augusta. Certainly, if I were in that position, I’d be doing much the same.”

Most of the chatter was more about the future with Woods.

Will he play at the Masters? Stuck on 14 majors for the last five years, can he match or surpass the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus? And what will be the larger obstacle – his age (38), his health (legs and back) or the competition (long list)?

”I don’t think 38 years is the ultimate stopping point for his quest to do what Jack did,” Palmer said. ”I think it lessens the possibility of that happening. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of the game that is necessary to win majors.”

Nicklaus won four of his majors after turning 38. Ben Hogan, with battered legs from a car accident, won five majors after turning 38.

Palmer, however, believes more than age is at stake for Woods.

”These young guys are tough, and they’re strong,” Palmer said. ”And if they continue to play as well as they’ve been playing, it’s going to be tough for anybody – whether it be Nicklaus or Tiger or whomever it would be – to continue to win major championships. And we’re talking about guys that are playing good and coming on.”

Palmer actually had a list of players he was talking about. Some of them were young, such as Chris Kirk and Harris English. Others had either won this season (Ryan Moore) or played well recently (Robert Garrigus).

”I don’t know how many you want me to name,” Palmer said. ”But really, the strength and the ability of these people is very pleasing to me.”

Graeme McDowell, a runner-up to Woods two years at Bay Hill, said he can understand what the No. 1 player is going through with injuries. He also believes that competition might be an even larger obstacle than his health for Woods to break Nicklaus’ record.

”He’s a physical player who creates a lot of speed and a lot of power and his body is starting to struggle a little bit, no doubt about it,” McDowell said. ”But I’m sure he’ll fix it. … But we all talk about how good the fields are nowadays. Taking Tiger’s fitness and physicality out of it, winning major championships is getting harder and harder for everyone – including the best player maybe that’s ever lived in Tiger.

”He’s got more than just his body to be fighting. There’s a lot of great players in the world now,” McDowell said. ”It’s going to be harder for him to achieve Jack’s record. But if anyone can do it, I’m sure he can find a way because we all know how good he is.”

The field at Bay Hill is not as strong as usual, starting with the absence of Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and an eight-time winner of this event. Match Play champion Jason Day (No. 4 in the world) pulled out with recurring pain in his thumb, and Phil Mickelson (No. 5) is not playing this year.

Not that it would change the dynamics of what already has been a peculiar season.

With 18 tournaments in the books this season, Zach Johnson is the only player to win a PGA Tour event while ranked among the top 10 in the world.

The Masters is three weeks away. Is it time for the stars to come out?

”Hopefully, this one does,” Masters champion Adam Scott said, pointing to himself with a laugh. ”But as far as unexpected winners, it seems to me that’s happening more and more in golf. There are more and more guys breaking through, putting in a lot of hard work and getting what they deserve. So I think we’ve seen a bit of a shift in the game over the last couple of years – a lot less domination by top players.”