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Bay Hill was a well-timed win for Tiger Woods

Photo: John Raoux/AP

The exhilaration of Woods and caddie Steve Williams was shared by NBC, which reaped the highest rating for a nonmajor in two years.

Welcome to April, a month that means three things — income taxes, green jackets and Tiger Woods, definitely not in that order.

Say goodbye to March, a month that is suddenly going to be a tough act to follow. It came in like a lamb and went out like a Tiger. The story of the year has been the breathless suspense surrounding Tiger's comeback. He had knee surgery last summer, was out for 81/2 months and didn't look like the unbeatable Tiger of old in a second-round loss in the Accenture Match Play Championship or during the CA Championship at Doral, where his putting was spotty at best.

But rest easy, Tigermaniacs. The earth is back on its axis. They held a tournament last week at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, and in accordance with local laws, Tiger won it. He did so, of course, by sinking a dramatic 16-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole, one of those putts that the old Tiger seldom missed.

The route to PGA Tour victory number 66, Woods's sixth at Bay Hill, was not an easy one. Tiger began the final round five shots behind Sean O'Hair, who struggled in with a three-over 73 to Woods's 67. Tiger didn't pull ahead until the 16th hole, when O'Hair's approach came up short and bounced into a water hazard. Woods bogeyed the 17th from a buried lie in a greenside bunker, and the two golfers went to the 18th dead even. O'Hair pulled his approach and left his 38-foot birdie putt short. Then Woods had the putt for the win, same as in 2008, when he holed a curling downhiller to beat Bart Bryant at the last.

When Woods goes to Augusta next week, he won't have to answer any more questions about whether he's ready. If he wins a fifth Masters — and he'll probably be the favorite — Bay Hill will have been the key stepping-stone. "I've played three tournaments and gotten better at each one," Woods said on Sunday evening. "The whole idea was to keep progressing to Augusta. It feels good to be back. This win validates all the things I've been trying to do."

Even before Sunday's thrilling finish, the Arnold Palmer Invitational was all about the state of Tiger, and he hinted that he was back from the very start. In fact, maybe all you had to see was Tiger's opening hole. He appeared to be making a mess of things, having left himself an awkward 33 yards short of a green with a front pin position. Naturally, he hit a masterly lob shot that went into the cup for a stunning birdie. The man knows good theater.

"The wind is whipping pretty good, and Tiger has this pitch shot out of the first cut of rough, and I'm thinking, He could start out with a double bogey here," says Mark Wilson, who played in the threesome with Woods and Padraig Harrington. "Then he hits a beautiful shot that rolls like a putt right into the middle of the hole. That was an impressive start."

Wilson says he was paying close attention to Woods and Harrington because he had gotten a call from some buddies concerning their annual wager on the Masters — high rollers, the bet is for a dinner — and they wanted a scouting report. "Tiger has this little draw working, and he hits the ball way up in the air," Wilson says. "I've never played Augusta, but everyone tells me that it helps to hit a high draw, and Tiger looks fantastic at that. He struggled with his swing at times, but his short game was sharp. It's not macho to chip in or hit nice shots around the green, but that's what wins tournaments."

So what else did Wilson tell his buddies? "That depends on whether I want to win dinner," he says, "but I'd pick Tiger or Padraig in a second."

On Friday, Woods had two more chip-ins: on the opening hole, with a little bump-and-run shot from the fringe that barely curled in from the side, and on the 8th, from just short of the green.

Some of Woods's par saves were just as remarkable. At the par-5 6th he played a soft, spinning pitch as if he were splashing out of a bunker, except that he did it from a tight fairway lie — a small bit of genius. The ball hopped a foot forward and stopped dead for a tap-in. At the par-3 7th he played a flop shot from the dreaded tuft-of-grass-behind-the-ball lie. He had to land his ball dead-solid perfect on a space the size of a scorecard, with spin, to have any chance of getting it close. Later, even he admitted that he was proud of that shot.

"I don't believe I've ever seen a finer exhibition," says Harrington, who'll be trying to win his third straight major championship in Augusta. Harrington laughs and adds, "I think maybe Tiger practiced his chipping while he was out."

The chip-ins and par saves were why Woods went three under par for the first 36 holes and why he made it into Sunday's final pairing, although he was five shots behind the leader, O'Hair. Going into the final round, Woods had hit only a little more than half of the greens (29 of 54) and fairways (23 of 42) and had occasionally gotten into trouble, like on Saturday when he tried to gouge a shot out of the rough on the famous 18th hole and deposited — and lost — his ball in the grassy bank of the water hazard. He had to drop back in the fairway and hit a full approach shot in. How's his putting? Woods poured in the ensuing 20-footer for bogey as if he were putting syrup on pancakes.

Woods needed only 76 putts through 54 holes and 101 for the week, quite a turnaround from Doral, where he said he had 20 lipouts in the first three rounds alone. (Who keeps track of lipouts?) But while Woods's short game was first-rate at Bay Hill, his ball striking was not. Woods lost a handful of shots to the right on both Thursday and Friday, most notably a drive at the 8th in the first round that he feared was out-of-bounds (but wasn't) and another tee shot that same day, at the 12th hole, which sailed right of the trees, causing Tiger to throw his club to the ground in disgust. Remarkably, Woods's ball bounced along a cart path and ended in the rough, from which Tiger made birdie.

"We had a great camera angle at 12 where you could see exactly where he is at impact," says Brandel Chamblee, the Tour player turned Golf Channel analyst and an avid student of the swing. "His left foot came off the ground, he jumped backward and hit that flare to the right. Great drivers hit into their left sides and clear. Tiger is still fighting it. He still gets stuck. That bad swing is still in there. Maybe he needs more time, but at this point he's not there."

It sounds screwy, but Chamblee doesn't see Tiger's errant driving as hurting his chances at Augusta. He views it more as an equalizer. "They've added trees and narrowed fairways and put more of a premium on driving at Augusta the last few years, while Tiger has become a worse driver," says Chamblee. "I thought he'd come back with a different move with his driver, yet I've seen no signs that he's made any improvement there. But Tiger can still gouge it out of the rough with anyone. He's still smarter than any single person on Tour. He can manage his game and get up and down, hit short irons close and beat up par-5s, make putts and handle pressure like he's sitting in his backyard drinking a cold beer, while everybody else is about to throw up. All those things matter a heck of a lot more in major championships, and that's why he kicks butt. If Woods has only an average driving week, he can win the Masters. He's playing only about 70 percent as well as he can, but even at 70 percent he's clearly better than everyone else."

That repaired left knee isn't going to hold Woods back either. Peter Jacobsen, a Champions tour player who has had knee surgery and a hip replacement, worked for Golf Channel and NBC last week and kept a close watch on Tiger's knees. "You can tell by a guy's foot action what's going on," Jacobsen says. "Man, he turned into that left side and let it go. There was no bailout, he looked good."

Brad Faxon, who had the same surgery as Tiger, but on his right knee, concurs. "It's hard to take nine months off," Faxon says, "but Tiger looks as if he is where he's supposed to be."

You know where that is. In April. In Augusta. In green. In that order.

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