ORLANDO, Fla. – What? Like you didn't think that was going to happen? Didn't expect one of the all-time greats to win again? Didn't believe a guy with 71 career PGA Tour victories would ever be able to claim a 72nd?
As you may have heard by now, Tiger Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the seventh time on Sunday. It was a triumph that must have shocked those who long ago crawled under rocks or dug their head in a greenside bunker.
For the rest of us, this was only a matter of time. Only a matter of time until his self-proclaimed process progressed to this point, until his physical ailments healed, his technical enhancements blossomed and the golf world shifted back onto its proper axis.
Tiger looked very much like the Tiger of old in the final round, employing a fairways-and-greens strategy to parlay a one-shot 54-hole lead into a five-stroke coronation. It was enough to make us believe the last two years, six months and 12 days were an aberration, the period between his last PGA Tour win and now part of some bizarre space-time continuum that never actually occurred.
But of course, it did. Which is the very reason why Woods punctuated his approach shot into the final green with an expletive exclamation of joy, then followed his clinching two-putt par by pumping his fist with a little extra oomph and hugging caddie Joe LaCava with a little extra fervor.
“It was just pure joy,” he said in his first words after sitting down in the tournament’s interview room afterward, and the expression on his face – broad, toothy smile accented by equal parts satisfaction and relief – mirrored those words.
Don’t expect it to be an isolated incident, though. Now that Woods has broken through for that long awaited first official victory – he won the Chevron World Challenge three months ago, an unofficial event that carries world ranking points – the proverbial floodgates will open.
That’s right. He’s going to win again. And again and again and again. Not all right away and not without further strife mixed in, but it’s going to happen – and it’s not going to take another two-and-a-half years, either.
The guy who won this week did so with a flair for closing that no other recent champion has displayed. In the first 13 tournaments of this PGA Tour season, no winner triumphed by more than three strokes over the nearest competitor; on Sunday, Woods prevailed by five.
It’s the type of performance that Woods used to proffer on a semi-regular basis. It earned him the reputation as an intimidator and dominator, but in reality, he’s always been more keenly defined as a closer – the rare player who knows exactly what it takes to accomplish the end goal of winning a tournament, then goes out and executes that plan.
The latest example couldn’t have come at a better time. Just 11 days prior to the year’s first major championship, he will head to Augusta National brimming with confidence, but understands that a victory some 400 miles away in Orlando hardly translates to impending success in Georgia.
“I've gone into Augusta with wins and without wins,” explained Woods, who will be seeking his fifth green jacket. “You're looking for one week, that's all. You know, just hopefully everything comes together for that one week. I understand how to play Augusta National, and it's just a matter of executing the game plan.”
Confident, yes. Satisfied, no.
Woods has often contended – as have so many other elite professionals – that if he’s not improving, he’s getting worse. And he knows that even after finally reaching the winner’s circle once again, there remains plenty upon which he can improve.
“I still need some work,” he maintained. “It's going to be good to get a week off and work on a few things. I enjoyed the progression we made this week. Each day there was a little bit of fine tuning here and there, and we were able to make those adjustments, which was good, and especially with the conditions getting more difficult on the weekend. I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days, and that's a very good sign going into Augusta.”
For now, Woods can bask in his 72nd career victory, one of which he said earlier in the week is “not a bad number,” ostensibly not only for its relation to the game, but because it puts him just one behind Jack Nicklaus for second place all-time.
There are those who believed it would never happened. They contended he was done. Washed up. A forlorn has-been.
To them, Tiger issued no I-told-you-so message after the win. Instead, he only allowed that he’s won before – and recently, alluding to that unofficial Chevron title from December in his post-round interview session.
When it was over, he exited the room and proclaimed to nobody in particular, “I’m hungry.” He was referring to needing tangible nourishment, but Woods’ own hunger games will continue at Augusta National soon enough. The appetite for another Masters victory has never wavered, even after filling up on his latest title this week.