ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods might be the only one who doesn’t consider his win at Bay Hill the start of a comeback.
As much joy as he felt on the 18th green after finishing off a five-shot victory – his first win on the PGA Tour in 2 1/2 years – he was all business when he fielded his first question about what kind of leap forward this might be.
“This is my second win,” Woods said.
Technically, he was right.
Woods counts the Chevron World Challenge nearly four months ago, when he finished birdie-birdie for a one-shot win over Zach Johnson. He earned world ranking points that day. And while it was only an 18-man field, every player had to be among the top 50 in the world to qualify.
But he contradicted himself moments later when he talked about his progression. The 36-hole lead in the Australian Open. A share of the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi. Playing in the second-to-last group at Pebble Beach, where he was within one stroke of the lead on the front nine. The closing 62 at the Honda Classic that made Rory McIlroy sweat in the final hour.
He mentioned just about every tournament except the event he won. Even after he won in December, Woods cited lyrics by LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
As for that win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
“It was just a matter of staying the course and staying patient … and here we are,” Woods said Sunday, another indication that beating a full field on the strongest tour in golf meant that he arrived somewhere.
The next question is where he goes from here.
There is no denying Woods is starting the second phase of his career. He had every right to bristle, as he did 11 years ago at Bay Hill, at the mere mention of a slump for going three months without a PGA Tour win.
His record will show winning at a rate never before seen in golf – and then two years in the middle with no trophies at all. That’s what makes Bay Hill the start of a comeback, or at least the start of his second career.
“Every golfer has two careers,” Johnny Miller said at the end of NBC’s telecast. “You have the first burst, and then sometimes you have a lull, and then you have a second career. Some guys have a pretty darn good second career. If I was coaching him, I’d say, `OK, you made the mistakes you made. Let’s just start over. This is the second career. You’ve got a new swing. Let’s see what you can do with this one.’
“It wouldn’t totally surprise me if he were to win 35 to 40 times from now,” he said. “He could do it. The way he is playing right now, he is going to kick butt.”
Miller might be getting carried away, and that wouldn’t be the first time.
One win is not a large enough sample, although the way Woods won was startling. He wound up beating Graeme McDowell by five shots, the 16th time on the PGA Tour that he has won by at least that many shots.
This wasn’t a case of Woods in the lead and everyone melting. Bay Hill was as stern a test this side of a major because of its firm, crispy conditions and wicked hole locations for the final round.
Woods closed with a 2-under 70. The next 16 players behind him on the leaderboard going into the final round failed to break par. He had amazing control of his shots, and while his 3-iron over the water to about 15 feet on the par-5 sixth is sure to get attention, equally impressive were the next two shots.
With the wind blowing left to right on the par-3 seventh, Woods held the slightest cut shot to a right pin placement just over the bunker. On the next hole, his 8-iron from 182 yards was just enough to carry the bank, and had just enough of a draw that it rolled to 4 feet.
What made Woods so enjoyable to watch was that he could hit shots that few other players could. He has shown glimpses of that dating to the Australian Open. He is doing it more often now. Winning was a product of cleaning up a few loose areas that had held him back – his iron play in Abu Dhabi, his putting at Pebble Beach, his chipping in the third round of Australia.
But winning 35 to 40 times at age 36, with four knee operations, and a left Achilles tendon that only two weeks ago caused him to withdraw in the middle of a final round?
Maybe it’s a matter of simple math. Woods won 71 times on the PGA Tour in his first 14 years. Cut that in half, and at the same rate, that would be 35 wins over the next seven years.
The argument against that would be his health, his age and his competition. Then again, the level of competition has always been dependent upon Woods.
Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world with five wins in the last 13 months. Right behind him is Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open by eight shots last summer with a record score, and whose graceful power and fearless shots make him the most likely candidate to give Woods fits.
Are they better than the players Woods faced at age 26?
If nothing else, they have more confidence.
“If a guy is winning eight times a year, even if you win three times, you don’t feel as good a player because there’s someone who’s that much better than you,” Geoff Ogilvy said last September. “I guess there’s more confidence among the top 20 guys than there was in those special years of Tiger.”
Are those special years back?
Bay Hill was a big step. Woods exchanged high-fives with caddie Joe LaCava after hitting his approach onto the 18th green with a five-shot lead. LaCava decided late last summer to leave Dustin Johnson, a rising American star, and work for Woods, who was coming off a three-month injury break.
At his first tournament with Woods in October, LaCava was asked why he took the job.
“Because he’s Tiger Woods,” he replied.
For the first time, the guy in the red shirt really did look like Tiger Woods.