By Michael Williams
GolfWRX Staff Writer
Tiger Woods led the field in a slew of statistical categories a the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill all week, but the only numbers that mattered were 70 (his 2-under par Sunday score), 5 (his margin of victory over runner-up Graeme McDowell) and 924 (the number days since his last Tour victory). Woods posted the largest margin of victory on tour since Rory McIlroy’s 8-stroke victory in the 2011 U.S. Open.
The win was the 72nd on the PGA Tour of Woods’ illustrious career, one less than Jack Nicklaus. It was his first Tour win since September 2009, and signals at least a temporary return to the form that made him the world’s top ranked player for nearly a decade. Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 and 2 ranked player in the world, respectively, were not in the field. The victory was also his first official win with swing coach Sean Foley, as well as with caddie Joe LaCava.
Carrying a slim one-shot lead over McDowell into the final round, Woods played with both precision and flair on a course that had the look and feel of a U.S. Open. Scores ballooned as the hard-baked greens and swirling winds tested the players’ skills and their patience.
McDowell, who was looking forward to playing with Woods in the final group on Sunday, suffered an early setback with a double-bogey on the first hole. He got one back with the first of several long birdie putts on the third hole, a 45-foot bomb that closed the gap to two strokes behind Woods. But he was never able to mount a serious challenge to Woods, missing several key birdie and par putts that would have cut the lead and put pressure on Woods, finishing with a 2-over par 74.
As McDowell struggled, Woods put on a ball-striking clinic on a course where he had tasted victory six previous times. Using his re-discovered “stinger” off of the tee, Woods split fairways time after time, and then went pinseeking with impunity. Woods hit a towering 3-iron from 267 yards over the water on the par-5 sixth, and before he could attempt his eagle putt from just outside 15 feet, McDowell made his from 50 feet.
Woods was in total control of all aspects of his game, the final two holes of the front nine showed it. Woods hit an 8-iron from 182 yards that cleared the bank by a few yards and rolled within 4 feet for birdie on No. 8. And on the next hole, McDowell missed a 4-foot par putt to fall four shots behind and essentially was out of the tournament given the level at which Woods was playing.
“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.”
Woods, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the 2012 season but had battled an uncharacteristically inconsistent putter, called the victory a culmination of months of hard work that produced a feeling of “pure joy.” Also making a return was Woods’ smile, who grinned broadly as he strode up the 18th fairway to the cheers of an adoring Bay Hill crowd. After holing out, he tipped his cap to the fans and hugged his caddie.
“I’ve gotten better, and that’s the main thing,” Woods said. “I’ve been close for a number of tournaments now. And it was just a matter of staying the course and staying patient, keeping working on fine-tuning what we’re doing. And here we are.”
Ernie Els failed in his bid to get into the Masters at Bay Hill. The three-time major champion started the final round three shots behind, but twice missed par putts inside 3 feet and shot 75. He would have needed a two-way tie for second to crack the top 50 in the world. Instead, he tied for fourth and moved up only four spots to No. 58. He will have to win the Houston Open next week to avoid missing the Masters for the first time since 1993.
Woods did not show any signs of the injured Achilles tendon that forced him to withdraw from his last Tour event. It turned out to be a mild strain, and Sunday was the eighth straight day that Woods played golf — starting with a practice round last Sunday at Augusta. Woods will skip next week’s Shell Houston Open as prepares his bid for his fifth Master victory, and to repeat his achievement of 2001 and 2002when he won the Masters after winning Bay Hill.
“It’s by far the injuries,” Woods said when asked about the most difficult part of his comeback, “because you can’t practice. I haven’t been able to put in the time. Can’t make a swing change and make all of the adaptations we need to make unless I can practice. I had not been able to do that. So being on the sideline most of last year was tough.”
Woods, 36, now takes his new swing and a revitalized putter to the course that has defined him as a player since he burst on the scene with a record setting victory in 1997. He is driving the ball straighter than he ever has, and he has greater distance on his irons. Combined with his institutional knowledge of the treacherous greens at Augusta, Woods performance immediately made the prohibitive favorite in the golf world to pick up another green jacket his year, which would put him at 15 major victories.
He’s going to be a force at Augusta,” said Ian Poulter, who shot 74 and finished third.
Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv