By DOUG FERGUSON
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 4:28 PM
ORLANDO, Fla. -- A toddler sitting on his father's shoulder behind the third green at Bay Hill broke the silence of Wednesday morning with a comment that made the gallery laugh and caused Tiger Woods to break into a big smile.
"I hope you win, Tiger," the boy said.
"Me, too," Woods replied.
That's usually not asking much of Woods, especially at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Woods is not as dominant at Bay Hill as other PGA Tour courses, although there is no ignoring his six victories, including the last two times he played with birdie putts on the last hole.
Those are distant memories.
Woods returns to Bay Hill with his game progressing at a rate that not even he knows. He has gone 16 months without winning, and while his last competitive round was a 66 on the last day at Doral, he has yet to perform with something at stake.
Is this the week he starts turning around his fortunes? Woods won't count himself out, and neither will the tournament host.
"I've obviously been watching his game, just like everyone else has," Palmer said. "I feel like Tiger has a golf game that he can come to the surface any time. I think that's certainly a possibility here. I would just not count him out at all.
"I think he's capable of winning any time."
But it's not just Woods who seems to be fading as the next batch of emerging stars are thriving. Phil Mickelson has not won anywhere in the world since the Masters last year, and decided to enter the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the last minute.
They are the best two players of their generations. The sheer numbers support that. Woods and Mickelson have combined to win 122 times around the world and 18 majors, with Woods doing most of that damage.
Lately, however, their road to the Masters is rather bumpy.
For nearly two decades - dating to 1992 - Woods or Mickelson have won at least one tournament before Augusta National. Both are winless this year, and unless something changes the next two weeks, this will be the second straight year that neither has a PGA Tour victory before the Masters.
What's alarming about Woods is that not only has he failed to win, he's not even coming close. He has not finished closer than five shots from the lead since the U.S. Open last summer.
He attributed that to what he calls the most dramatic swing change of his career - greater than the change under Butch Harmon after the '97 Masters, and greater than when he went to Hank Haney in 2004.
"They are bigger changes, and it's taken a little bit of time," Woods said. "Then again, I've showed some good signs of late. The Sunday round at Doral was back to what I know I can do. And then I played well at Tavistock (a two-day TV exhibition), and I've had good practice sessions. So I'm really looking forward to tomorrow."
He can look forward to hitting first from the fairway for most of the day.
As the tour and television continue to tweak the tee times to get feature groups, they came up with a dandy at Bay Hill. Woods will spend the first two days with Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland, both of whom are on the A-list of big hitters in golf.
Woods has never seen Woodland, who won last week at Innisbrook. He needs no introduction to Johnson, and not just because they played together at the Memorial last summer.
Last December, toward the end of the round at the Chevron World Challenge, Woods was waiting to tee off on the par-3 17th when he turned behind him to watch Johnson tee off on the par-5 11th.
Johnson pounded a drive right down the middle, and Woods looked down and shook his head with a smile. Someone in the group asked Woods, "Can you hit it out there with him?"
"Are you kidding? No," Woods replied.
That led to a conversation about athleticism, and Johnson is a model of the pure athlete starting to be seen more on tour.
"The thing is," Woods said that day, "there are plenty others just like him. They're not coming. They're here."
Woods got on Twitter later Wednesday and said about the first round Thursday, "I'll definitely be hitting first from the fairway all day tomorrow with Dustin and Woodland in the group."
"I'll be the Corey Pavin of my group," Woods said at his press conference. "Seriously. I'll just kind of put it out there in play and put it up on the green and try and make putts. Those guys will be bombing it way out there past me. It's a new game now. When I first came out on tour, I was second longest. There was only one guy at the time, John Daly, that was over 300 (yards)."
In a way, it's only fitting.
When he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion in 1996, Woods was paired with the defending champion in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. That was Pavin, and a USGA official with a sick sense of humor filled out that group with none other than Daly.