ORLANDO, Fla. – He’s back.
He needs time.
He needs reps.
He needs rest.
One busy week for the game’s former alpha male doesn’t quiet or quantify any of these often-heard sound bites because, as the last 30-odd months have demonstrated, golf eschews instant analysis.
Today’s reality is tomorrow’s recycled nonsense. Yet as a breezy spring day turned to dusk at Bay Hill, the only thing that was certain was that for four days Tiger Woods was good. Like 2006 good only with more shots out of the short grass and fewer walk-off putts. In his defense those types of theatrics would have seemed like overkill.
Truth is there was no need, not when your final line is the statistical embodiment of precision.
Bogey-free and nearly perfect on Friday hitting 17 of 18 greens in regulation; slowed by a surreal two-hole stretch on Saturday that included a plugged lie (No. 14), a swooning teenager, a scream and a snapped tee shot out of bounds (No. 15); and ultimately a victory that ended a title drought that had stretched to 30 months with the type of Sunday performance that once defined his career.
Woods’ heroics at Torrey Pines in 2008 and Bay Hill in ’08 and ’09 aside, he made his competitive bones by undercutting his competition and removing all glimmers of hope one clinically played shot at a time.
It was a familiar modus operandi, Woods began his final lap at Arnie’s place by hitting six consecutive fairways – and the one he missed (No. 9) was by inches – nine consecutive greens in regulation and made the turn 2 up on Graeme McDowell. From there Woods played the final loop in 1 over in what on most Sundays is called a prevent defense.
If next month’s Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday, Bay Hill was over by intermission. At least it felt that way.
“I noticed coming down the stretch he was 3 under for the day,” Bubba Watson gushed. “In these conditions that’s unbelievable.”
Woods’ last official PGA Tour victory was at the 2009 BMW Championship but to watch him close at Bay Hill it was as though he was fresh off a ‘W’ and not a worrisome WD at Doral two weeks ago.
When he bolted the property 11 ¼ holes into his final round at the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this month, his status for the Masters was a hot topic. Now the only talking point is whether he’ll be the outright favorite heading down Magnolia Lane or share the honor with Rory McIlroy.
The last two years he’s finished tied for fourth place at the year’s first major with a “one-dimensional game” and more distractions than a teenager with a BlackBerry. But his five-stroke victory over McDowell changed all that, at least for this news cycle.
But if the victory was defined by Woods’ stellar ballstriking there is also something to be said for his resilience following a miscue on the 15th hole on Saturday when a woman reacted loudly to a teen-aged boy who had passed out and Woods pulled his tee shot out of bounds.
Some may have considered that an untimely nod from fate. Not Woods.
“I saw a calmness last night on the range,” said Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava. “I’m a little frustrated because of what happened on 15 and he didn’t let it bother him. He heard what happened and understands the situation. Hit balls until dark and you could almost sense he knew he was going to play well today.”
But if that episode added a surreal element to the proceedings, the absence of tournament namesake Arnold Palmer from the award ceremony cast a pall over what was an otherwise circus-like atmosphere.
Fifteen minutes before Woods completed his closing-round 70 Palmer was sent to a local hospital with high blood pressure and planned to stay there overnight.
“It really puts a damper on the situation because he is what’s so special about this tournament,” said McDowell, who slipped three strokes behind Woods with a double-bogey 6 at the first hole and never got closer than two shots the rest of the way.
But then Woods has become accustomed to the surreal ever since he hit a tree and a fire hydrant in November 2009 to begin an uber-public free for all. Since that last official victory in ’09 in Chicago Woods has changed swing coaches, caddies, addresses and marital status.
Armchair psychologists would consider Woods’ Bay Hill breakthrough nothing short of monumental and, for a moment, Woods allowed the thought.
“It was pure joy,” he smiled before the inner competitor intervened a few moments later. “You don’t need to win. You want to win, that’s the misconception a lot of people have.”
Few, if any, of Woods’ contemporaries can attest to the ebb and flow of the past two-plus years better than Sean O’Hair. It was O’Hair who began the 2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational five strokes clear of Woods only to lose by a stroke. And it was O’Hair who helped facilitate the connection between Woods and swing coach Sean Foley in the summer of 2010.
“I just think it was a matter of time,” said O’Hair, who split with Foley last May. “He’s the best player that ever played the game and it was only a matter of time before he wins again. For the people who thought that he wasn’t going to win again I don’t think they know the game of golf very well.”
There had been close calls, including near misses last year at the Australian Open and this year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Pebble Beach and the Honda Classic. There had been breakthroughs, unofficial or otherwise, at last year’s Chevron World Challenge. But there was never any doubt. Not for Woods or Foley.
“All my guys are fantastic talents and when you put science to talent you’re going to get good things eventually but it takes time,” said Foley, who began working with Woods in August 2009. “Outside of his kids winning is what matters so to see him happy right now is what’s important.”
The scientist in Foley saw progress give way to near perfection this week. Bay Hill marked the first time Woods has posted four under-par rounds in the same event since the 2010 Masters, and his patience was matched only by his precision.
For the week Woods was first in greens in regulation, hitting 57 of 72 putting surfaces, 29th in fairways hit, sixth in driving distance and fourth in strokes-gained putting.
Woods also dissected Bay Hill’s par 5s playing them in 12 under, a key statistic during his halcyon days in 2006 and 2000. But most telling about Woods’ performance was that both teacher and student see plenty of room for improvement.
Both, however, took a moment to savor Tour tilt No. 72 and his seventh Bay Hill decision. Following Woods’ approach to the 72nd green he high-fived LaCava and beamed, “All that hard work has paid off. F’ing yeah.”
At the same moment adjacent the final green Foley allowed, “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re 50 percent of the way into the pattern.”
For those closest to him the question was never whether Woods was done or back. It was when would all the pieces fall into place?
“It’s been a long time. He was a man on a mission. Let’s be honest, you saw the ballstriking,” LaCava said. “He was pretty jacked up . . . He probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow.”
Don’t we all?