Tiger re-establishes himself as winning force at Bay Hill

March 25, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's official. After 923 winless days, many spent wandering, injured and in search of the golf game that appeared to have deserted him, Tiger Woods is back.

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His face set like flint against the west winds of March, Woods broke the longest drought of his golf career on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. For the first time since September 2009, he won an official PGA TOUR event, doing so in a way that could best be described as vintage Tiger Woods.

He shot 70, the lowest round of any player in the last 16 pairings at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge. With gusty winds on a course baked hard and fast, with the pins tucked and throats tightening, Woods simply refused to let go of the lead he brought into the day. He made clutch putts when he had to, kept his nearest pursuer at arm's length all day, and let out a primal scream when the victory was no longer in doubt.

"It does feel good," he said, moments after his 2-under 70 gave him a 13-under total of 275 that was five strokes better than Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, who closed with a 74. "It feels really good. It's been a lot of hard work. I'm so thankful for a lot of people helping me out along the way. They all know who they are. It's been tough.

"It was just pure joy."

Pure joy has not been much in evidence in the two years, six months and 12 days since he won the BMW Championship at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill. In that span, Woods has gone through a mountain of personal struggles and fought a variety of injuries to his knee, ankle and Achilles. He has, under the tutelage of Sean Foley since the 2010 PGA Championship, remade his golf swing. He has been scrutinized under the media microscope, second-guessed and disbelieved, alternately savaged and cajoled in the blogosphere. He lost his wife to divorce and fired his longtime caddie, Steve Williams.

Through it all, Woods has recited the mantra that became very familiar: it was all a process. He was working his way back to where he was. He wasn't sure when it would all come to fruition.

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On Sunday, it did. No more maybes about it. No more wondering if he would ever regain the form that made him a fixture atop the golf world in every category that mattered. He just rejoined the parade of winners in a season that is shaping up as the most competitive since his dominance of the game began in 2000.

There have been 72 different winners on the PGA TOUR since Woods last won; Sunday he won for the 72nd time in his career. Just the way they used to before all the unpleasantness first surfaced in Woods's life, there was a sense of synchronicity.

There was his caddie, Joe LaCava, who has worked with Woods for six months, talking about what it was like to be inside the ropes with him for their first win together.

"He was a man on a mission today," said LaCava, who was a fixture on the bag of Fred Couples through most of the past two decades. "He was pretty jacked up. He was out to prove himself.

"He probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow."

Actually, Woods said he still wants to get a few things before he gets to the first major championship of the year in two weeks. Once there, he will resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus records that have been a stated goal since he taped them to his wall as a child in Cypress, Calif., on the Los Angeles outskirts -- one victory away from tying Jack's overall total of 73 wins, four majors away from tying his record of 18 majors.

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Tiger Woods moves to No. 7 in the latest standings while Johnson Wagner regains the No. 1 position. Standings

The old saw in sports holds that winning cures everything. Like most thoughts reduced to bumper-sticker length, that has a kernel of truth. But it's simplistic. By winning in the manner he did, Woods certainly has immediately changed the conversation, ending debate on a number of questions that have dogged him.

For example: His fitness to compete at a high level? Answered. The Achilles tendon flare-up that precipitated his withdrawal during the fourth round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship has responded to treatment. The state of his overall golf game? Sound. He has begun to take ownership of the swing changes he and Foley have been working on for 18 months.

For him, he said, the most difficult part was dealing with all the injuries.

"It's by far the injuries," he said. "Because you can't practice. I haven't been able to put in the time. Can't make a swing change and all the adaptations we need to make unless I can practice. I had not been able to do that."

As for his state of mind, well, he spent the past four days burying the demons of doubt out in the Bay Hill turf where he has now won seven professional events. And on a Sunday as difficult as the old course had seen in decades, he convinced his fellow competitor that he had seen a revival.

"I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback," McDowell said. "Great to have a front row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best -- winning golf tournaments."