Old guard invades Bay Hill en masse

There was a time not all that long ago when having Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els in the same field meant a tournament director could boast that he had the four best players in the world.

But when they all tee it up this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, none is in the top 10 of the World Golf Ranking, even though Mickelson and Woods proved earlier this year at Pebble Beach that they still can draw a crowd.

Bay Hill could not land any of the current top four players in the world: newest No. 1 Luke Donald of England, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, Lee Westwood of England or Martin Kaymer of Germany.

The 22-year-old McIlroy knows, however, that the older generation on the PGA Tour still has something left in the tank even as the new kids on the block at times seem to be taking over.

"Exciting times for golf," McIlroy said after taking the top spot temporarily by withstanding Woods’ 62 in the final round of the Honda Classic three weeks ago. "I think it’s fantastic for the game, seeing Phil do what he did at Pebble and Tiger playing like he did (on Sunday at PGA National). And, hopefully, I’m in there somewhere, getting to No. 1.

"It’s good for the sport."

Perhaps Bay Hill is the place for Woods, his left Achilles apparently healed, to answer what has become a weekly question: "Is Tiger all the way back?"

This is a tournament the former No. 1 player in the world has won a record six times, including four in a row from 2000-03 and then again in 2008 and 2009 with dramatic putts on the 72nd hole in each of the last two.

"Certain courses fit your eye, and this is one of them," said Woods, who lived right down the road from Bay Hill at Isleworth until moving to Jupiter, Fla., last year. "I can see my lines on the greens, and the fairways set up well for shaping my shots. I’ve always enjoyed playing there."

Els (1998 and 2009), Mickelson (1997) and Singh (2007) also have won at Arnie’s place.

When Lefty is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May, only Woods will be missing from the Hall among that quartet. His time will come soon enough.

These guys carried the game for the best part of the past 20 years, all except Mickelson holding the No. 1 ranking at one time or another. Although their salad days are behind them, they still can’t be discounted.

This fabulous foursome has combined for 163 PGA Tour victories, including 27 major titles.

Of course, the 36-year-old Woods leads with 71 wins and is chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships on a sometimes gimpy left leg.

Mickelson, who will turn 42 in June and has played much of his career in Woods’ shadow, claimed his 40th victory last month by closing with a brilliant 64 at Pebble Beach. Lefty has four majors to his credit, including three Masters titles.

The 49-year-old Singh, who has been hampered by injuries in recent years, has won 34 times on the US circuit, including three victories in the Grand Slam events. The Big Fijian is the best player in history after the age of 40, with his 22 victories after reaching the big 4-0, surpassing the previous record of 17 by Sam Snead.

Els, the 42-year-old South African known as "The Big Easy," has 18 PGA Tour titles and three majors, but he played more of an international schedule than the other three and has 46 other victories around the world.

They might not be golf’s greatest generation, but at least they are in the ballpark with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Billy Casper.

Or Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Henry Cotton in the 1940s and ’50s. Or Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and Walter Hagen in the ’20s and ’30s. Or Harry Vardon, Ted Ray, James Braid and J.H. Taylor in the early years of the 20th century.

While the Woods generation has begun to wane, others in addition to McIlroy, Donald, Westwood and Kaymer have stepped forward, a group that includes Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and Jason Day of Australia.

And there is a talented group of younger Americans, including PGA champion Keegan Bradley, FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker.

Sure, the new generation is taking over, but those who emerge as the best of the group have some big spikes to fill.