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What the Competitors Are Playing For
Focus shifts to Augusta as Woods continues to impress
ORLANDO, Fla. – On the final question of his final meeting with the media at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods offered his shortest and most direct response of the week.
Back when he launched this latest version of his comeback, before the Hero World Challenge in December when his world was filled with more doubt than possibility, could he have envisioned heading down Magnolia Lane carrying as much momentum as he’ll have on his fused back in a couple weeks?
“No,” he said.
That was it, outside of maybe the slightest hint of a grin. But there was also nothing more that needed to be said.
Woods’ bid for a record ninth title at Bay Hill ended when his tee shot on No. 16 bounded over a fence and out of bounds Sunday. His title bid last week at the Valspar Championship lasted two holes longer but eventually arrived at the same conclusion: close, but not quite enough.
But given where Woods stood a few months ago – even a few weeks ago – his Masters preparation has been nothing short of a success.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year, that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said.
In three straight starts in the Sunshine State, Woods compiled three top-12 finishes. He nearly broke the Trackman equipment with his driver swing speed, flaunted a transformative short game and stirred memories of years gone by with each shockwave he sent through the galleries.
And yes, that continued in a big way Sunday at Bay Hill as there was about a 45-minute stretch where it seemed like maybe, possibly, Woods might somehow find a way to chase down Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson.
“It was a clinic I thought today, except for two tee balls,” said caddie Joe LaCava. “No. 9 he got away with it, but you know what I mean. It was a clinic ball-striking except for the tee balls at 9 and 16. Other than that, it was great.”
This week Woods officially became the Masters betting favorite in Las Vegas, a statement that would have seemed ludicrous to type in the wake of his missed cut at the Genesis Open just four short weeks ago. At that point his ability to simply tee it up the following week at PGA National was seen as a great coup, and a sign that he might still be able to make a go of it in his latest comeback attempt after so many previous attempts were aborted or derailed by further injury.
Now here we sit, with his last competitive shot before the Masters in the rear-view mirror, and suddenly the man seems to have all the shots necessary to make a legitimate run at a fifth green jacket.
“I’m looking forward to it. I miss playing there,” Woods said. “I’ve been there for the dinner, and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m, I would have to say, young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not. And I just have not been able to physically do it, which is difficult.”
It’s a testament to Woods’ rapid ascent that the number of questions he faces about his health and stamina dwindle with each passing round. Seemingly overnight, the focus has shifted back to mental preparedness, shot selection and equipment tweaks he might make in order to nab his first win in nearly five years.
In the span of a few weeks, performances that once seemed on the brink of extinction have become the new normal.
“I don’t want to get too high or too low. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But you’re seeing improvement each week,” LaCava said. “I know you hear that from him, too. But it just seems like he’s getting better and better with his swing and trusting it more, which I think is huge.”
The latest effort came Sunday on a course he knows like few others. Woods realized entering the day that the odds were stacked against him, and as it turns out even his most valiant effort wouldn’t have been enough to keep pace with McIlroy. But when he buried a birdie putt on No. 13 to get within a shot of the lead, his third in the last four holes, a familiar glint returned to his eye as he trudged to the 14th tee.
Realizing the moment, the ever-expanding crowd responded with a “Tiger! Tiger!” chant that enveloped the tee box and caused McIlroy to step back off his birdie putt across the lake on the 11th green. And while his title bid ended in abrupt fashion a couple holes later, it was still a snapshot from a scene that so recently seemed improbable.
For a second straight Sunday, Woods donned his traditional red and black and exceeded expectations. Even, as it turns out, the ones he set for himself.
Tiger can't commit, goes OB on 16: 'That’s on me'
ORLANDO, Fla. – Standing on the 16th tee with the leaders in sight and the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears, Tiger Woods contemplated three different options for his most critical tee shot of the week.
He couldn’t decide on any of them, and as a result deposited his chances of winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a backyard adjacent to the fairway.
Woods was only one shot back through 15 holes, but with the leaders well behind him on the course he knew he needed at least a birdie on the par-5 16th to keep pace. Instead, he pulled his tee shot left and out of bounds, leading to an untimely and costly bogey on the easiest hole on the course.
“I was caught,” Woods said. “I couldn’t decide what I was going to do.”
In Woods’ mind, he had three options: “fit” a driver left to right with the shape of the fairway, “bomb it over the top” of the dogleg or just hit a 3-wood “straight away.” He opted for the driver, but after missing right the first three days he sent his ball sailing left.
“I bailed out and hit a bad shot,” Woods said. “And that’s on me for not committing.”
Woods went on to bogey the next hole, but after a par save on No. 18 he finished the week in a tie for fifth at 10 under for his third straight top-12 finish. Given the sizzling close of Rory McIlroy, an eagle on 16 likely would have still left him looking up at the Ulsterman on the leaderboard.
“Even though I got up there, I just knew I needed to keep making birdies,” Woods said. “Those guys had so many holes behind me, where I just birdied the same holes and so if they made birdie on those holes, I would have to keep going. I got to 16, I figure I’ve got to play the last three holes in 3 under to have a chance and probably force a playoff. And maybe that wouldn’t have been good enough the way Rory is playing back there.”
McIlroy (64) storms to Arnold Palmer victory
Rory McIlroy fired a bogey-free, final-round 64, birdied the 72nd hole in Tiger-esque fashion and stormed to a three-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how Rory ended his winless drought, and how the aforementioned Woods made a Sunday charge before collapsing late:
Leaderboard: McIlroy (-18), Bryson DeChambeau (-15), Justin Rose (-14), Henrik Stenson (-13), Woods (-10), Ryan Moore (-10)
What it means: This is McIlroy’s 14th PGA Tour victory and his first worldwide win since Sept. 25th, 2016. That was the day he walked away from East Lake with both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup. It was also the day Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87. With the win, McIlroy reasserts himself as a force following a winless 2017 in which he was plagued by a nagging rib injury. The four-time major winner will make one more start at next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and then make his way to Augusta National, where he looks to complete the career Grand Slam.
Round of the day: Two back to start the final round, McIlroy made his eight birdies in bunches. He circled three of his last four holes on the front nine – Nos. 6, 7 and 9 – to make the turn in 3-under 33 and work his way into the mix. Following three pars at 10-12, he caught fire, ripping off five birdies in his final six holes. He took the outright lead at 14, chipped in at 15, and sealed the deal at 18.
Best of the rest: DeChambeau made McIlroy earn it, cutting the lead to just one when he eagled the 16th hole as McIlroy was walking to the final tee. A par at 17 and a bogey at 18 netted him 68 and solo second.
Big disappointment: This is Stenson’s fourth top-five finish at this event in the last six years. The overnight leader by one, he went 71-71 over the weekend and bogeyed 18 to finish fourth.
Biggest disappointment: Woods made a vintage Sunday charge at Bay Hill before bogeying two of his final three holes and settling for a final-round 69 and a tie for fifth.The eight-time API winner was minus-5 on the day and just one off the lead when he sniped his tee shot at the par-5 16th out of bounds to the left. He bogeyed both 16 and 17 before making a scrambling par at 18 to finish the week 10 under par.
Shot of the day: McIlroy’s birdie putt at 18.
Quote of the day: "It means a lot. You know, the last time I won a PGA Tour event was the day Mr. Palmer passed away, so it's a little bit ironic that I come here and win. He set a great example for all of us players to try and follow in his footsteps. If everyone on Tour could handle themselves the way Arnie did, the game of golf would be in a better place. ... To be able to win his event, I wish I walked up that hill and got a handshake from him but I'm so happy to my name on that trophy." - McIlroy
TT postscript: Closing stretch dooms Woods ... for now
ORLANDO, Fla. – Here are some thoughts from walking one last loop alongside Tiger Woods on another steamy afternoon at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
• What might have been. Woods transformed Bay Hill into an absolutely electric atmosphere when he started the back nine with three birdies in four holes to get within a shot of the lead. Dressed in his traditional red and black, it was a second straight Sunday where we were treated to watching him try to catch the leaders down the stretch.
• But the momentum he had built up disappeared with a single tee shot, as Woods pulled his drive on the par-5 16th out of bounds and into someone’s backyard. His chances for a ninth tournament title were effectively ended with one errant swing, as he bogeyed the easiest hole on the course and then bogeyed the next for good measure.
• While the closing stretch was disappointing, it was still another remarkable week for Woods considering where his game stood a month ago. His 3-under 69 in the final round lifted him to 10 under for the week, and he ended up in a tie for fifth. He’s now on the cusp of the top 100 in the world rankings, and he’ll head to the Masters on the heels of three straight top-12 finishes for the first time since 2008.
• It didn’t take long after his final putt dropped for Augusta National to become a topic of conversation. Woods has played only once since 2014, and he plans to make a return trip before the season’s first major to re-acclimate himself with the course and make sure his yardage book “is still good.”
• Taking the long view on things, Woods was all smiles about his comeback that remains a work in progress. “If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments,” Woods said, “I would have taken that in a heartbeat.”
After going T-2 and T-5 in this latest fortnight, Woods will now have two weeks off before he tees it up for a chance to win his fourth green jacket, his first major since 2008 and his first tournament anywhere since 2013. Can. Not. Wait.