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Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational had all the trimmings to make it feel like a big-time party, full of anticipatory pre-Masters buzz, like a pre-Augusta kegger: great weather, Tiger, Simmerin’ Spencer Levin, U.S. Open-like bloodshed, Tiger, Steve Marino pain, a Euro winner not named Lee, Martin, Ian, Rory or Graeme, ‘last channel’ remote-control function giving us Shaka Smart magic on hardwood, Johnny Miller cracking wise on NBC (he called Marino a “walking lip-out,” yes he did), Tiger and, of course, the King himself.

When Arnold is in the house – deeply-tanned, sweater draped over his shoulders on the NBC broadcast, exuding Arnie-ness – all is right with the golf world. And let’s be honest: This coming week’s Shell Houston Open is window dressing, the golf equivalent of the final weekend of baseball spring training, when bags are packed and all anybody can do is look forward to blowing out of town.

In baseball, that means teams splitting from Florida and Arizona for Opening Day.

In golf, that means enduring the Shell Houston Open until we get to the Masters.

Consider Bay Hill a final cram session before the year’s first major, then. And like John Belushi’s Bluto Blutarsky springing from the trash bin with the answers to the final exam in “Animal House,” we’ve got some final answers right here:

• Tiger will not win the Masters. This is not about Tiger hate, dear reader. This is an honest evaluation of a guy who can’t putt right now – much less reliably hit fairways and greens. When Tiger Woods goes to Torrey Pines, Dubai, Doral and Bay Hill and posts T-44, T-20, T-10, T-29 … well, that’s like Larry Bird shooting a cool 11 percent from the field at the Boston Garden. Amazingly, the greatest player of our time is wracked by a lack of consistency – and worse, a lack of confidence – in his game. How else can you explain being in contention at Torrey after 36 holes, then firing a 74-75 on the weekend? Or being in contention at Dubai after 54 holes, then posting a 75 on Sunday? Or following up a buzz-worthy Friday 68 at Bay Hill with a 74-72 weekend? For Tiger to struggle is one thing. For him to struggle on weekends is something else entirely. I’ve long thought that, even given his travails since Nov. 27, 2009, he’d still pass Jack Nicklaus’ major record because of his comfort zone at Augusta National, where I thought he’d win three more green jackets just by showing up. And that still may be. Just not this year.

Sergio Garcia played well from tee to green at Bay Hill, but he's unlikely to be a factor at Augusta National.
(David Cannon/Getty Images)

• Spencer Levin will not win the Masters, but he will entertain you nonetheless.Trick statement: Levin does not have an invite for Augusta, and won’t make it unless he wins at Houston this week. Regardless, Levin, who produced a woeful Sunday in the final pairing and wound up T-6 at Bay Hill, is a 26-year-old with a game on the rise. He’s been known in Northern California circles for years for his prodigious talent, homemade swing, affinity for on-course cigarettes and, ahem, intense desire. That’s another way of saying Levin runs hot. Perhaps you all saw his errant drive at 16 on Saturday, followed by a wicked practice swing, at full force, at his tee in the ground. My favorite Levin anecdote came when I covered him in the 2003 California State Amateur at Pebble Beach. Approaching the 15th tee box, three holes down, he spied a spectator clutching a cold bottle of beer. Amid the pressure of the moment, an expressionless Levin was thoughtful enough to ask the gentleman: “How’s that Heineken treatin’ you?” Bonus points for Levin, a San Francisco Giants fan, for wearing the team lid last October at tour events during the G’s run to the Series.

Sergio Garcia will not win the Masters despite a recent flash of form.A general rule of golf is: Sergio Garcia – ever since the Medinah Tease of ’99, and backed up by the Carnoustie Crash of ’07 – will never win a major. Whether it’s because he enraged the golf gods with the “Loogie in a Cup” move, or whether it’s because he’s proven to have a dime-store head in pressure situations, or whether it’s because he’s really a poor putter, El Nino will be El Zip-o when it comes to career majors, sadly. And yet, here he is in 2011, preaching slow improvement, patience and posting better results: eighth at Bay Hill; ninth in Qatar on the Euro Tour; a T-15 at Innisbrook. Don’t fall for it and catch Sergio Fever going into Augusta. Amazingly, Garcia has fallen to 72nd in the world rankings (as of Sunday) and only qualified for the Masters by virtue of his three-year exemption from winning the 2008 Players Championship, his last tour win. That’s sort of shocking.

• The rest is wide open. Without getting an eyeball test on Martin Kaymer or Lee Westwood, who didn’t play Bay Hill, we can fairly proclaim the 2011 Masters gigantically open for conjecture. It wasn’t always thus. In Tiger’s prime, you’d come to Masters week and assess the field like this: Tiger, Tiger, Phil, Tiger, Tiger, Ernie, Tiger, Tiger, Vijay, Tiger, Tiger, Retief. Now? Take about 20 names, shake ‘em up in your Masters bucket hat and have at it. Everybody looks good – and everybody has flaws. Bubba Watson? Sure, he won at Torrey and is great pick and all … but he shot 78 on Sunday at Bay Hill. Nick Watney? Love him, may be the smartest pick out there – and then I remember that 69-68-66-81 at Whistling Straits. Dustin Johnson? A second at Doral was sweet, but a missed cut at Bay Hill was sour. Phil Mickelson? Just two top-10s in six stroke-play starts, but the defending champion only had one top-10 last year before rolling down Magnolia Lane and leaving with a third green jacket. Hunter MahanPaul CaseyLuke Donald … we could go on. Point is, take any of them – except Tiger. Or Sergio. Or Spencer. And you’ll be good to go.

Scorecard of the week

70-65-70-75 – 8-under 280, Martin Laird, winner, Arnold Palmer Bay Hill Invitational.

And then there’s this guy – proving a player may be able to win “Comeback Player of the Year” in one day.

Martin Laird is a Scotsman who came to America to play golf at Colorado State, and never left. After his 11th hole on Sunday at Bay Hill, however, he was probably wishing he could move back to the Scottish Highlands and hide out for decades in a cave.

Laird took a three-shot lead at Bay Hill and massacred it. He bogeyed No. 3. He bogeyed No. 7. He bogeyed No. 9. And on 11, he snapped a shot from a fairway bunker into one of Bay Hill’s many watery graves for a double bogey. That’s five shots given back to the field, and after he bogeyed 14, too, a three-shot deficit. Slow death.

But while Steve Marino found agony in double bogeying 17, Laird stayed calm, birdied 15 and 16, made a tough two-putt for par on 18 and won his second PGA Tour event. Go figure. Sudden life.

Maybe we should get used to this guy. Like last week’s winner Gary Woodland, Laird is a monster off the tee, sixth in driving distance at 302.1 yards. He’s 16th on tour in putting, and fourth in scoring. He had three top-10s prior to the win, too, and will make his Masters debut this year.

On a day when Scotland’s Paul Lawrie won for the first time in nine years – yes, like you, I thought Lawrie moved to Bora Bora years ago, never to be heard from again – let’s call Sunday “Braveheart Day” in the golf world. To paraphrase “Fantasy Island’s” Mr. Rourke, I say: Kilts, everyone! Kilts!

Mulligan of the week

• Amazingly, the LPGA played another event in the continental United States. In California, even! The Kia Classic was a doozy, too. Jiyai Shin, who has name recognition, eight wins and a major, had a battle royale with Sandra Gal, who has no name recognition, zero wins in 70 starts, and stands 6 feet tall.

Turns out Gal, a German who went to the University of Florida, lists modeling as a hobby and has the bikini photos to prove it. (Now there’s something she does not have in common with Martin Laird.)

At any rate, Gal and Shin came to the 18th hole at City of Industry near Los Angeles all tied up, and both women hit stony approach shots, answering the bell. Shin was three feet out; Gal just 24 inches away.

And then it reared its ugly head – the Golf Pressure Monster (GPM) … Shin, who has done this all before, suddenly felt the temperature inside her body rise about 40 degrees and had to back away from her three-footer. A juiced-up crowd whooped and hollered at Shin’s indecision, and then it happened: The GPM showed up. Shin blocked her 36-incher, lipping out. Ouch!

Gal, of course, kicked in her winner and became the tallest winner this side of Michelle Wie. Shin, meanwhile, gave an interview so full of good cheer and grace to The Golf Channel, I found myself asking: Wait, didn’t she just miss a three-footer on national TV? Where’s the Spencer Levin-esque rage?

Still – shades of John Daly at Harding Park in his playoff with Tiger Woods – you hate to see somebody lose like that. It would have been great to see the two tangle further, so let’s rush back out to 18, place Shin’s ball three feet out and … give that young lady a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

“You’re seeing a lot of chips in the Foley Era come up short.” – Johnny Miller, NBC, getting a dig in at Tiger’s short game and new swing coach.

You give Johnny Miller a chance to tweak, and he will tweak.

With all sorts of golf luminaries – Arnie, Jack, Lee – wondering aloud why Tiger would go to such great lengths to re-invent his swing for the third time, Miller took the chance to call out Tiger’s short game after an indifferent chip on Saturday left him about 12 feet for par.

Sad thing is, Miller is right. Among the many things that ail Tiger’s game right now is a lack of that sizzling short game. Tiger around a green used to be the surest bet in sports. Now, it’s a 50-50 proposition.

Miller saw the opening and attacked. It’s what he does – like a lion in the savannah.

Where do we go from here?

• In a feat once thought impossible, the LPGA will play three consecutive weeks Stateside – somebody alert Ripley’s! It’s the Kraft Nabisco in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the year’s first major, too. Is it time for The Big Wiesy? A distinct possibility, friends.

And while I spent the top part of this column ridiculing the very notion of the Houston Open, the field isn’t half bad: Mickelson always loves to get work in the week before Augusta and is in. Mahan and his big surfer shades will be there. Bay Hill protagonists Levin and Marino will be, too. Lee Westwood will dare to find his way to H-Town, as well.

And anytime Fred Couples shows up, everybody has a good time. Oh – he’ll also be at the Masters. You might want to give him a look. Why not?

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