- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The four-time Masters champion has an ailing back, and he’s been having it checked out even more regularly the last two weeks. It has reached the point that he is planning surgery after the Masters to see if he can get more comfortable playing golf.

Tiger Woods?

No, that would be Arnold Palmer.

“The doctors have seen things that they think they might be able to do something about,” Palmer said Wednesday at Bay Hill. “And I’m at this point about a month away from having an operation on my back to help me enjoy the game a little more.”

Palmer can’t speak for Woods, who is unable to defend his title this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

A year ago at Bay Hill, all the talk was that Woods was back. He won Bay Hill to return to No. 1 in the world for the first time in more than two years.

Now all the talk is about Woods‘ back.

He withdrew with five holes to play in the Honda Classic. His back bothered him the following week at Doral, and then flared up on Sunday as Woods posted a 78, the highest final-round score of his career. After a week off, the lower back pain was persistent enough that Woods called the 84-year-old tournament host to tell him he couldn’t defend his title in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“He didn’t tell me how bad his back is. I don’t think he knows how bad his back is,” Palmer said. “I think he’s listening to the doctors. And he mentioned that they’re saying that he needs to give it a bit of a rest and see if he can work it out. He was very nice. And I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play. And I appreciate that and the fact that he called.

“I think he wanted to play golf this week,” Palmer said. “I think that he needs to take (time) - whether it’s this week, next week or the following week - to get ready for Augusta. Certainly, if I were in that position, I’d be doing much the same.”

The field at Bay Hill is not as strong as usual, starting with the absence of Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and an eight-time winner of this event. Match Play champion Jason Day (No. 4 in the world) pulled out with recurring pain in his thumb, and Phil Mickelson (No. 5) is not playing this year.

Not that it would change the dynamics of what already has been a peculiar season.

With 18 tournaments in the books since to the official start of the season in October, Zach Johnson is the only player to win a PGA Tour event while ranked among the top 10 in the world.

Jimmy Walker has won three times. Patrick Reed, who feels like No. 5 but who still is only No. 20, has two victories, including a World Golf Championship.

The Masters is three weeks away. Is it time for the stars to come out?

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