Much has changed since Tiger Woods last won an official event on the PGA Tour in September of 2009, but the former No. 1 player in the world began to restore order with a stress-free, five-stroke victory over Graeme McDowell at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday.
The victory, Woods's seventh at this course and the 72nd of his career, was the first since his life was blown to bits when a slew of tabloid-ready infidelities were revealed in late 2009. It's also his first win since he and swing coach Sean Foley began working together in the summer of 2010, and it should ease concerns over Woods's often brittle body. At 36, his list of ailments includes a surgically repaired left knee and tender left and right Achilles tendons.
"It was just pure joy," Woods said. "You know, it was tough today. It was tough conditions out there, man. Wind was whipping out there. It was changing directions and intensities. Arnold did a hell of a job of getting these greens fast, and they were baked out and some of the hardest pins I've ever seen here."
McDowell doubled-bogeyed the par-4 first hole to give Woods a three-stroke lead, draining some of the drama out of the final round almost before it started. McDowell made a few dramatic long putts, but in the end it wasn't enough to catch a steady Woods, who made four birdies and two bogeys for a 70.
"I let him get ahead of me early," said McDowell, who also finished second at Bay Hill in 2005, "and he was very tough to get close to after that." Bay Hill marked Woods's last start before the Masters at Augusta National, where Woods hasn't finished worse than a tie for sixth since 2004. He hasn't won there since 2005, but after Bay Hill he may be installed as a co-favorite with Rory McIlroy and possibly Phil Mickelson when the season's first major begins on April 5. Such was the power of Woods's long-awaited return to the winner's circle in Orlando.
"Well, I mean, he's always a force to be reckoned with [even] when he's not playing his best golf," said Ian Poulter, who shot 74 to finish third, "and obviously he's playing a lot of good golf right now."
On the few occasions when Woods misfired Sunday, he made up for it with the putter. After losing his tee shots right and into fairway bunkers on the 10th and 15th holes, Woods saved pars with a long two-putt and a par putt from about 15 feet.
With Els and Poulter falling back, the tournament came down to just two men, and McDowell (74) could never mount a serious charge. He eagled the par-5 sixth hole to make up for his terrible start, but he laid up into a bunker and made bogey on the par-5 12th hole, failing to put pressure on the leader. Woods, who had missed his drive well left, made par. Woods brought a four-stroke lead to the 15th tee.
Bay Hill has been a get-well tournament for Woods, so it was only fitting that he broke his career-long, two-and-a-half-year dry spell here. When he rolled in a long birdie putt to beat Sean O'Hair at Palmer's place in 2009, Woods proved he could still get it done after undergoing season-ending surgery on his left knee the previous summer. Sunday's victory, though, was perhaps more impressive, coming as it did after personal turmoil, recurring injuries and the third swing overhaul of his pro career.
While Woods has tried to put his life and his game back together since his Thanksgiving car accident in 2009, there have been many reminders that he no longer rules the game as he did in his prime, circa 2000. McDowell provided one of them at the 2010 Chevron Challenge, an unofficial event just north of Los Angeles, where he rolled in two big putts to force and win a playoff with third-round leader Woods. (Woods won the 2011 Chevron, an 18-player event that doesn't count as an official PGA Tour win.)
Woods held the 54-hole lead again at the HSBC Golf Championship in Abu Dhabi in late January of this year, but again he lost, this time to Robert Rock.
Although he got into contention again at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, Woods was badly outplayed by Mickelson, who won with a 64. The whispers were growing louder that Woods was not the same player who had racked up 14 major championship victories, and hadn't been for a while. Jack Nicklaus's 18 major championship victories appeared untouchable again.
Woods was once a lock when leading through the first three rounds, but everything began to change in 2009, when Y.E. Yang overcame him in the final round of the PGA Championship. Then the Woods scandal broke three months later, and his wife left him shortly afterward. In the past two years, Woods has also changed instructors and caddies and watched his world ranking plunge as low as 52nd. If all that weren't enough to turn his life upside down, he hurt himself again while hitting a shot from a bed of pine straw at the Masters last year and missed much of the rest of the season. And he recently moved from his longtime home in at Orlando's gated Isleworth community into a huge, Jupiter Island estate.
"It's by far the injuries," Woods said when asked about the most difficult part of his comeback, "because you can't practice. I haven't been able to put in the time. Can't make a swing change and make all of the adaptations we need to make unless I can practice. I had not been able to do that. So being on the sideline most of last year was tough."
By the time he came into Sunday's final-round duel with McDowell, Woods was still a very good 48-4 when holding at least a share of the lead after 54 holes in official PGA Tour events. But in his last five attempts to close out a 54-hole lead, both on and off the PGA Tour, he lost three times, including his losses to McDowell at the Chevron and to Rock in Abu Dhabi. His aura appeared to be all but gone. Of even greater concern was his failing body. Just a week after he shot a thrilling, final-round 62 at the Honda Classic, nearly stealing the tournament from golf's new, new thing, Rory McIlroy, Woods complained of a sore Achilles tendon and withdrew from the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.
That was only two weeks ago, but Woods returned to action to play the two-day Tavistock Cup exhibition before teeing it up at Bay Hill, where he showed no ill effects from his injuries. Just over two years after his 12-minute mea culpa press conference in front of the blue curtains, Woods donned the winner's blue blazer at Bay Hill yet again. (Palmer, 82, was not at the awards ceremony but at the hospital to monitor his blood pressure. A spokesman said he was in no discomfort but would remain hospitalized overnight.)
"Great to have a front row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best," McDowell said of Woods, "winning golf tournaments."
Suddenly Nicklaus's record was back in play, and for Woods, and much of the rest of golf, all was right with the world again.