ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods didn’t always pour in putts on Bay Hill’s 18th green.
But those previous misses paid off when he was trying to hold off Phil Mickelson in the final round of the 2001 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. They were the top two players in the world and tied atop the leaderboard. Mickelson already had signed his scorecard, while Woods was facing a finishing hole that was playing a half-stroke over par.
Just five players had birdied the 18th hole all day. After hitting a 5-iron onto the green, Woods faced a curling 15-footer for his second win at Mr. Palmer’s place. He figured the putt would break a foot to the right. He’d missed it low before, though, so he added a couple inches to his read.
“I hit the putt just the way I wanted to and it took its time breaking,” Woods said. “But once it started snapping, it went sideways and caught the hole.”
Now it feels like it’s impossible for players to miss on Bay Hill’s final green. Left-to-right putts are supposed to be anathema for right-handers, but it has become an annual tradition for the champion at Bay Hill to cap off his win by curling in one last birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Woods has done it three times, as have the past two winners.
Since ShotLink started measuring shots in 2003, the winners of the Arnold Palmer Invitational have holed 168 feet of putts on the 72nd hole. That’s more than any other event. This despite a traditional Sunday hole location that’s tucked behind water and cut on a steep slope.
Richie Hunt, a statistical consultant for several TOUR players, says that players make about 5% fewer putts from 15-20 feet to that hole location than the TOUR average. Woods’ influence cannot be understated, though. He’s made a hard putt look easy, and everyone, including TOUR players, has seen the highlights on repeat.
“Every player has seen Tiger make all those putts on that green, so they know it can be done,” said NBC analyst Gary Koch, who won at Bay Hill in 1984.
Tiger Woods' final-round 66 at 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational
Woods spiked his hat after sinking a 24-footer in 2008. It was almost dark when he made one from 16 feet the following year. Both birdie putts were necessary for one-stroke victories.
Five years ago, Matt Every sank a 17-foot birdie putt on 18 to win his second straight Arnold Palmer Invitational. He beat Henrik Stenson by one.
Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari won by larger margins, but their final putts completed dramatic Sunday charges.
Two years ago, McIlroy was trailing by two strokes at the start of the final round. He made birdie on five of the final six holes – including a 25-footer on the final green – to win by three.
McIlroy’s 64 was the low round of the day by three shots.
Molinari shot the same score in last year’s final round to go from five behind to a winner by two shots. He capped it off with a 43-foot putt on the final hole. It’s the fourth-longest putt holed by a winner on the 72nd hole in the ShotLink era (since 2003).
“You know it's definitely not breaking right-to-left from there,” Molinari said.
The tournament’s namesake would be proud of what has transpired in his tournament. He is the one, after all, who said, “You must play boldly to win.” Bay Hill’s final hole requires bravery to birdie.
“It’s a daunting shot. It looks like there’s no green there. From the fairway, all you see is rocks and bunker on that entire right-hand side,” said longtime TOUR caddie Paul Tesori. “Long is a bogey. Short is a double. It’s one of the most intimidating shots on the PGA TOUR, but it’s also given us some of the best drama.”
Shot of the Day
Rory McIlroy drains birdie putt on the 72nd hole for Shot of the Day
Tesori has had a front-row seat for that drama. Sean O’Hair played with Woods in the final round in both 2008 and 2009. Tesori was on his bag.
O’Hair was one of five 54-hole leaders, along with Woods, in 2008. O’Hair was two back when he reached the final hole, though. That eased the sting of Woods’ final blow.
The next year, O’Hair took a five-shot lead into the final round. He and Woods were tied entering 18. Even though O’Hair had blown his large lead, he still had a chance to win. Zach Johnson, the third member of the final threesome, knew how this story was going to end, though.
“We’re standing on the fringe and Zach said, ‘Paulie, I’m sorry but he’s going to make this,’” Tesori recalls. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ It was pretty dark. I just didn’t think he was going to do it that time. He’d already made it twice in the past. He’d already used those up.”
Of course, Tesori was wrong.
“All those putts went in with perfect speed,” he said. “I feel like they could have fit in a thimble. They go in exactly where they’re supposed to go in, in that 7:30 area of the hole.”
And now they just keep pouring them in on Bay Hill’s 18th green.