DORAL, Fla. -- You saw the same person everywhere you looked at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, a polarizing mega-millionaire who loves golf and flits about in his own air taxi. Donald Trump -- celebrity boss, birther, entrepreneur, sparring partner of The New York Times and Vanity Fair -- bought Doral last year and hired architect Gil Hanse to revamp it starting now, but you can already see the Trump touch in two new water features. Huge fountains at the resort entrance and behind the practice green are replete with rearing horses, old men with tridents, cherubs, two-headed fish, and Atlas with his celestial sphere.
You saw the same person everywhere you looked at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, a polarizing mega-millionaire who loves golf and flits about in his own air taxi. Tiger Woods is the de facto owner of the place after winning the windswept Cadillac on Sunday, making this the fourth Tour event he’s won at least seven times. (Torrey Pines, Bay Hill and Bridgestone are the others.) It marked his 76th career victory, six behind all-time leader Sam Snead, and makes him the favorite to win the Masters just one month from now. Woods, who started the day with a four-shot lead over playing partner Graeme McDowell and a five-stroke cushion over Phil Mickelson and the semi-retired Steve Stricker, bogeyed 18 to shoot 71 and beat Stricker by two.
“It feels good,” Woods said, “especially to play that well this entire week, on a difficult setup. The greens got really quick out there today. If you left the ball in the correct spot, though, you could be pretty aggressive and shoot a good number.”
The result looked closer than it was. Woods missed right off the 18th tee, hit a lay-up and nearly hit his third shot in the water. He got up and down for bogey.
“He’s been solid with 54-hole leads over his career that you just don’t think he’s going to come back [to the field],” Stricker said, “and he didn’t again.”
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Although the forecast called for high winds, the breeze stayed mostly benign. McDowell birdied the first two holes but Woods, wearing his usual Sunday red shirt over black slacks, birdied the second to keep a comfortable, three-stroke cushion. He birdied the par-3 fourth hole, too, building his lead back to four shots, and from there on in it was a familiar race for second place. McDowell shot 72 to finish five shots behind Woods, with whom he played both Saturday and Sunday.
Adam Scott shot 64, the low round of the week, and Sergio Garcia had 69 to join McDowell and Mickelson (71) in a four-way tie for third place.
“He was going to be tough to catch, anyway,” said McDowell, who never holed enough putts on the weekend and double-bogeyed the tough 18th hole.
One shot spoke volumes: Woods’s third at the par-5 12th hole, where he hit a bunker shot with both feet outside the greenside bunker. It was the kind of shot he might have had trouble with when he was pained by knee and Achilles injuries, but he stayed down through it and watched as his ball trickled 12 feet past the pin. He missed the birdie putt, but that was almost beside the point.
For the record, Woods re-asserted his supremacy not at plain old “Doral” but “TPC Blue Monster at Trump Doral,” a name from the Department of Redundancy Department, which was fitting. We’ve seen this movie a million times. Yes, he is back, and no, there was never a doubt he’d win. Going into Sunday he’d converted 50 of 54 third-round leads on Tour, including 19 of the last 20. He had never lost a Tour event he’d led by four or more strokes going into the final round, and while McDowell had made up a four-shot margin and upended Woods in a playoff at the unofficial Chevron Challenge in 2010, that was a lesser Woods -- a man whose swing changes had yet to solidify, and whose short game was a shadow of what it was at Doral, where his 100 putts beat his career best over 72 holes.
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The tournament effectively ended midway through the third round Saturday. That’s when McDowell, having closed the gap to one stroke, three-putted the 10th hole for par after Woods had birdied, and then, rattled, dumped his approach shot in the bunker and missed a six-and-a-half-foot par putt on 11. Woods’s lead was suddenly back to three shots, and while there was mild drama -- Woods losing his tee shot in a tree, McDowell making a late eagle -- the Cadillac was all but over and the only remaining question was how you felt about Woods’s reemergence.
Just as The Donald split the vote all week at Doral -- players admired his helicopter while journalists ridiculed his hair -- you can safely assume Woods did, too. Get used to it; we’re going to be seeing a lot of him in 2013. He’s making putts again, the result, in part, of a pre-tournament lesson from his old pal Steve Stricker.
“That was nice of him,” said a droll McDowell.
Woods’s trap-cut off the tee is mostly working, and he has finally dialed in the distances he’s hitting his short irons, a weakness that was woefully apparent at last year’s majors. Asked after the third round if his game is as good as ever, he said, “I don’t want it to be good. That was never the intent. I want it to be better.”
Is Woods better than he was in 2000? No, but the idea of it suddenly seems far from ludicrous. The last three times he won at Torrey Pines and Doral to start the season, as he has this season, he went on to six- (’05), eight- (’06), and seven-win seasons (’07). He won nine times, including three majors, in 2000.
“It’s going to be hard for him to dominate because these guys are so good,” said Damon Green, Zach Johnson’s caddie and a pro himself on the Champions Tour. “But, yeah, I could see him winning seven or eight tournaments this year.”
Winning seven or eight tournaments would be dominant. And Woods, who is finally 100 percent healthy and whose lone remaining flaw is his occasionally wild tee shot, was dominant at Doral. He led wire-to-wire for his 17th World Golf Championship victory, his first since 2009. His resurgence is a result of not only his work ethic -- he closed down the range as night fell Friday -- but also, in some small way, the dizzying, early-season swoon of Rory McIlroy.
Woods’s old rival, Mickelson, could have been a threat at Doral had he not missed some short putts and failed to birdie three of the four par-5s Saturday, but Lefty’s brilliance always fades in and out. He birdied the first two holes and shot 71 Sunday to tie for fourth. Woods was supposed to have to worry more about his new rival, McIlroy, who was a steadier, more potent threat, until he wasn’t.
At the Cadillac, McIlroy apologized for quitting mid-round at the previous week’s Honda Classic, saying he needed to stop pressing and start enjoying golf again after a missed cut in Abu Dhabi, a first-round loss in Tucson, and the WD in West Palm. Sure enough he smiled around Doral, where he saw “a lot of positive signs,” but it was odd to watch Woods drum him by 11 shots over 36 holes -- Luke Donald was the third member of their group -- and by 15 over the first 54.
McIlroy shot by far his best round Sunday, a 7-under 65.
“I was pretty down about my game coming into this week,” he said, “but a few days like I’ve played, you know, it does my confidence a world of good.”
Still just 23, still No. 1 in the world, McIlroy is trying to fix a glitch in his swing, a tendency to take the club back too far outside and get stuck. He politely dispelled rumors that his romance with tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki is on the rocks, and said it’s just a coincidence that his swing flaw popped up only after he had signed a megabucks deal to switch to Nike clubs in 2013. Critics howled at the equipment switch, but the 65 will buy him at least a day or two of peace and quiet. He’ll get just one more start, at the Shell Houston Open in three weeks, before the Masters in April.
Nike, of course, is Tiger’s brand, yet another illustration of how seemingly everything in the game has begun to once again orbit around the 14-time major winner, future Hall of Famer, and 37-year-old divorced father of two. Bubba Watson revealed at Doral that his new manse at Isleworth -- which he and his wife and son will move into later this week -- is Tiger’s old manse, totally remodeled.
We’re still attracted to and repelled by Woods; we know too little and too much. The Miami Herald reported he was “all business” during a “full-body workout” at Equinox South Beach last Thursday, overshadowing actor Kelsey Grammer, who “stuck to cardio” nearby. Woods “said hello to people as he left.”
Also in the news: Woods, who lives about 100 miles north in Jupiter, spent the week on his yacht, Privacy, which was docked near the aforementioned gym. What other golfer commands such attention? By taming Trump’s new real estate bauble, again, Woods made a compelling argument that golf’s new one and only is golf’s old one and only -- all jokes about his hair and eccentricities aside.
“That’s how I know I can play,” he said. “That’s the thing. To be able to bring it out a couple times this year, and then able to close and get the Ws on top of that, that’s nice. Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good.”