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March 25 2012

11:03 PM

Tiger wins Bay Hill, breaks drought

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Tiger Woods won the 72nd title of his PGA TOUR career on Sunday at Bay Hill.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The drought is over for Tiger Woods. And he did it in familiar fashion -- locking down the win while wearing his Sunday red at a course that’s been very, very good to him.

Thirty months -- specifically 924 days -- after his last PGA TOUR win, Woods returned to the winner's circle on Sunday at Bay Hill, winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard by five strokes over playing partner Graeme McDowell.

“It does feel good; it feels really good,” Woods told NBC after his win. “The conditions were tough. These pins -- Arnie took it to us today.”

Woods shot a 2-under 70 to finish at 13 under, with McDowell his closest pursuer at 8 under. The five-shot victory was the largest on TOUR since Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open last year by eight strokes.

The five-shot win is the 16th time in Woods’ PGA TOUR career that he has won by five or more shots.

“Watch out, boys on the PGA TOUR,” NBC analyst Johnny Miller said. “Tiger is back.”

Woods' last TOUR win was the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009. It should be no surprise he ended his drought at Bay Hill, a place he's now won at seven times. Sunday's win was the 72nd of his TOUR career.

It was a relatively stress-free Sunday for Woods. He started the day with a one-stroke lead over McDowell, then shot 3 under on the front side to extend his lead. McDowell, meanwhile, opened with a double bogey. He fought back but missed some key putts down the stretch that might have put pressure on Woods, eventually finishing with a 2-over 74.

“I just never really got close enough to him today,” McDowell told PGA TOUR Radio. “Not going to be disappointed in any way. I got beaten by the better man today.”

As he walked up the 18th fairway, victory securely in hand, Woods wore a huge smile as the large gallery walked up behind him.

Woods – a two-time winner of the FedExCup -- now moves to seventh in the FedExCup standings, with Johnson Wagner taking over the No. 1 spot. He also moves to sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking after starting the week in the 18th spot.

Woods went to the final hole with a five-shot lead but said he never relaxed until his ball found the green in regulation on the 72nd hole.  Referencing all the late leads that have been lost by 54-hole leaders in 2012, Woods said. “We’ve had some interesting finishes on TOUR this year.”

With tough greens and even tougher pin placements, Woods called it “a day of survival and attrition.” But his game was solid all week – he finished tied for first in the field in greens in regulation, fourth in Strokes Gained-Putting and 11th in driving distance.

Sunday’s finish was in drastic contrast to his last final round two weeks ago when he had to pull out of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship with a strained left Achilles tendon. But his play this season seemed to indicate that he was on the verge of winning – he was runner-up at the Honda Classic three weeks ago when he closed with a 62, and he was in the second-to-last group on the final day of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Asked about his emotions after winning Sunday, Woods replied: “Pure joy.”

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