ORLANDO, Fla. ' Tiger Woods wasnt dead as he slapped his wedge into his golf bag adjacent Bay Hill Club & Lodges 14th hole, but he was dying, dejected and decidedly not in control. As the shadows inched long across the cool grass, the world No. 1s title chance were getting short.
Third time this week, Woods barked at caddie Steve Williams as he angrily eyed the buried lie.
From there Woods was virtually unhittable. A staff ace with his best. Filthy.
The highlight reel walk-off would come later, at the 18th hole ' where else? But the meat of Woods first victory of 2009 was gouged from deep beneath the lip of that bunker. A violent, bullish swipe that sent sand flying and Woods ball bounding across the green. He rolled in the 13-footer for par, keeping pace with Sean OHair, maybe the most likeable of all his potential foils in recent years, and keeping his title hopes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational alive.
He makes, I miss its three shots, Woods said of the unlikely par and OHairs missed birdie attempt. It was huge.
But then blue blazer No. 6 didnt seem as foregone as others when Woods took tee in hand on Sunday afternoon five adrift the ball-striking beanpole on a golf course that looked more U.S. Open than Bob Hope Classic.
Woods trimmed three shots off the advantage by the time he reached the halfway house, played matching cards with OHair for nearly an hour late in the round and after the 14th hole the starter went into closer mode.
At the 15th hole Woods made a scrambling par for his first Tour lead since last June, survived buried lie No. 4 for the week at the 17th and fired his approach at the last to 15 feet to set a familiar stage.
From there the history books received another an update. With OHair waiting to clean up his par putt, Woods sent a roar into the darkening skies as his birdie putt arched toward the hole and a collective shiver through the PGA Tour with the seasons first major a fortnight away.
Im in serious disbelief. Ive never seen him make a putt he absolutely had to make, said Zach Johnson in his best deadpan delivery since he wedged and putted his way to a green jacket two year ago. I dont think he wanted to come back tomorrow.
The victory kept Woods from going 0-for-3 in his comeback and winless for the season heading into Augusta National for the first time since 1999. It also marked a return to familiar territory for Woods, who has made a career out of winning without his best stuff.
Although Woods was sharp, he wasnt perfect. His 5-under 275 total was his highest winning tally at Bay Hill since 2002. He ranked 51st in driving accuracy and 50th in greens in regulation but was first in putting. Always a good measure of Masters readiness.
For three tournaments Woods had said his game was close, and at Bay Hill he proved it, while OHair proved hes closer to a spot at the Tours big table than many initially figured.
For Woods, it was a familiar MO. Keep the leaders within a touchdown, big numbers off his card and wait for others to fold. OHair could have run away and hid with the lead, actually got it to 10 under and seven clear of the field at one point on Saturday, before high pressure, both meteorologically and metaphorically, got the best of him.
OHair slipped from the lead when his approach at the 16th spun back into the murky pond on Sunday, while Woods played the hole as Palmer and God made it, as a par 5, laying up with his second shot from the deep rough and saving his par from 3 feet.
The pressure may have gotten to OHair, but not the moment. Truth is the 26-year-old had been in the fishbowl before, having played in the final group with Woods at last years API and with Phil Mickelson at the 2007 Players Championship, and hes performed admirably on each occasion.
He may have a kid-next-door look about him, but the man is a killer between the ropes.
Prior to teeing off for the third round at last years PGA Championship, just three shots off the lead, OHairs swing coach Sean Foley fired his new student a motivational text message: Pressure is a privilege.
OHairs response: I like that.
In fact, OHair bristled, in as much as a doting husband and father of 2.5 kids can, at the notion that Woods presence on a leaderboard sends players into immediate scramble mode.
It's not like it's the Tiger show and I'm just out there to watch him, said OHair, who closed with a 73 to finish alone in second place at 4 under. I think that's the one thing the media thinks about the guys out here, and it's not about that. We're trying to win golf tournaments, and he just happens to be that good. But just because he's good doesn't mean we're out there watching him.
No, it wasnt the pressure that got to OHair so much as it was a slightly miss-timed swing. He hit less than half his fairways and needed 31 putts on Sunday, his highest total of the week, and yet still had a putt at the final hole to square the match and send the event to a likely Monday finish.
But clutch putts at No. 18 and Woods have become as much a part of the API as Palmers welcoming smiles and copious amounts of iced tea mixed with lemonade. His 24-footer to win last years event was only slightly less iconic than his Torrey Pines march and on Saturday Woods rattled in a 25-footer for bogey to assure himself a spot in Sundays A flight.
Yet statistical reality is Bay Hills 18th may be the only piece of Orlando real-estate Woods doesnt own. Since 2000, Woods first API victory, hes 2 over on the finale, and before 08 hed made birdie there just twice in eight attempts. It just so happens his last two Sunday trips down No. 18 have been instant classics.
It's like Stevie (Williams) was saying out there, this feels like we hadn't left, said Woods, signaling an official end to the comeback.
This time the hat stayed firmly on his head, but for a brief twilight moment the lid seemed blown off the season.