The Bay Hill event being directly in front of THE PLAYERS for many years in March (the PLAYERS would move temporarily to May but return to a March date in 2019) helped to strengthen the field. Orlando is a popular place to be in March, with the Masters not far around the corner. Joie Chitwood III, in his first year as API’s tournament director, said he received nearly 90 requests for exemptions to compete.
Hatton, McIlroy, young Viktor Hovland (Norway), Sungjae Im (Korea), Matthew Fitzpatrick and Paul Casey (England) and Hideki Matsuyama (Japan) are but a handful of players hoping to further the trend of international champions at Bay Hill when play starts Thursday.
“I don’t think there is any real specific reason. Sometimes you just have runs like that that you can’t really explain,” said Leishman, the 2017 API champion and last year’s runner-up. With nearly $3.4 million in career earnings at the API, he ranks second only behind Tiger Woods.
Christian Bezuidenhout, a promising young South African playing in his second API and housed at Bay Hill as he competes in several events in the United States, sees the golf course as being very similar to those players might see across the European Tour.
“On European Tour-style courses, you plot your way around,” he said. “I don’t think this is your typical PGA TOUR course. It’s not just a bomber’s paradise, and you see a lot of 2-irons and 3-woods off the tees. You need a plan here.”
Bezuidenhout played in the second-to-last group on Sunday a year ago, alongside McIlroy, but was one of many players swept away in windy and firm conditions. The scoring average was nearly 76 on Saturday, and just more than 75 on Sunday. Hatton shot 74 Sunday, making pars at his final seven holes.
“There’s a lot of firing away from pins, showing discipline at times, and then when you do have a chance, making the most of it,” Leishman said. “Depending on the wind there are different holes on different days that you can attack. A lot of them run the same way so you have runs where you’re downwind, and then then you might have six holes into the wind. So understanding the wind and how it changes each day can be important.”
Take all those factors, mix in high winds and lots of water on the golf course, and it makes for a demanding test. Bay Hill always crowns a deserving winner. Of late, they just all seem to be players with international passports.
“So I think it is just an interesting stat that’s popped up,” Leishman said. Laughingly, he added, “I like it, but maybe we should keep it quiet, so it keeps happening.”
When Els won at Bay Hill as an international in 1998, little could he know what he was starting. He enjoyed a strong relationship with Palmer, who was warm to him when Els was just starting out, well before he ever started ticking off major championships. When Palmer first invited Els to Bay Hill in 1993, the two played together the opening two rounds, a memory Els still cherishes.
“For me to win the tournament twice was, of course, the greatest thrill and honor,” Els said. “Whenever I see photos of Mr. Palmer presenting me with the trophy and us laughing together beside the 18th green, it sends a shiver down the back of my neck.”
PGA TOUR staff writer Ben Everill contributed to this report