Big names fill void at Bay Hill

3/28/2010 - Golf Ernie Els

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is not a column about Tiger Woods. I promise.

In order to discuss the state of golf during the season's opening three months, though, it's necessary to mention He Who Hasn't Played, so commence eye-rolling, deep sighing and head-banging now.

There, feel better?

It's been said that during Woods' extended, self-imposed leave of absence, no single player has stepped up to dominate the PGA Tour and, technically, that is correct. Thirteen events into this campaign, we've witnessed 13 different champions. The "I" of the Tiger has turned this party into parity.

Too often that word comes with negative connotations in sports, offering the idea that winning is more lottery than proficiency. In this case, it should be considered a benefit to the game, with so many of the world's most talented players already seeing their names etched into hardware this year.

Throw out Cameron Beckman and Derek Lamely, winners of the two second-tier, opposite-field events so far, and that leaves 11 worthy titleholders. Of those, eight are currently ranked in the top 30 on the Official World Golf Ranking. While this might speak more as a result of their success than a reason for it, it's inarguable that the list includes some of the biggest household names without ol' whatshisface in the mix.

Already this season, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els, Camilo Villegas and Geoff Ogilvy have secured places in the winner's circle, comprising a veritable who's who of major champs and those with major chops.

That fact is relevant once again through 54 holes here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, as yet another star-studded cast is permeating the leaderboard.

"I think it's great for the tournament," Ernie Els said. "You've got to beat a very good field to win here."

Entering the final round at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, the three-time major champion and recent WGC-CA Championship winner holds a single-stroke advantage over former Open Championship winner Ben Curtis and a bevy of other big leaguers.

In all, there are five major champions in the top 11 on the leaderboard and five 2010 winners within 7 shots of the lead, with Els and Furyk taking up spaces on each of those lists.

"I think everything goes through an ebb and flow," said Furyk, who shot a third-round 66 to move into a share of sixth place. "We had some young guys that won early, and that was the big story that the young guys were going to take over. And now you have Ernie and I winning the last couple of weeks and now all of a sudden the old guys are doing good."

Among them are forty-somethings Retief Goosen and Davis Love III, each in a share of sixth place going into the final round and each seeking his first win of the season.

Even with so many popular players in contention, there is still room for an underdog.

Enter Chris Couch. At one time a highly touted amateur, the career journeyman owns a PGA Tour victory -- at the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans -- but hadn't finished in the top 10 since then until a share of fourth place in Phoenix last month.

Couch is currently playing on a major medical extension, the result of various injuries which left him "sitting on the couch -- matching my last name." While many of his contending peers are stalwarts at this event, the local resident has written Palmer for each of the past 18 years without garnering a single sponsor's invitation.

With rounds of 70-70-69 -- the last of which was buoyed by a fortunate approach shot into the final hole that bounced on the greenside rocks three times and remained dry -- he is currently in third place and hoping to beat some of the big boys on Sunday.

"I try not to be a leaderboard watcher, but this tournament's got a lot of great players in it -- always has," Couch said. "Anytime you put Arnold Palmer's name on an event, you're going to bring in the greatest players. I'm just blessed to be out here every day that I'm out here. I know it can end at any time, and so I just take it for the most part right now."

A potential title run seemed to end on Saturday for the world's third-ranked player, Phil Mickelson, who owns just a single top-10 finish in five starts prior to this week. With opening rounds of 71-67, he appeared to be on the verge of another solid result, if not his first victory of the year. But a third-round 75 left him well off the pace.

"I had a rough round today in that the ball just didn't seem to want to go in the hole," he said after taking 33 putts, 10 more than in his previous round. "Quite a difference from yesterday, when they were all dropping."

Though Lefty might not be in position to claim the win at Arnie's place, chances are strong that another proven veteran will walk away with the trophy on Sunday afternoon.

So don't believe the hype. While it might be true that no individual player has taken full advantage of the absence of the No. 1-ranked guy, the most talented golfers have collectively been positioning themselves nicely throughout the season's first three months continuing that trend this week at Bay Hill.

It's a good thing, too. I've heard You Know Who is coming back pretty soon.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.