Tiger cruised at Bay Hill, but his comeback won't be complete until major No. 15
It’s tempting to think it, to write it, to put it on a banner and tow it behind a plane.
Don’t. Not yet.
Because The Comeback is still not complete.
Give the man his due. Tiger Woods is No. 1 again, the top-ranked golfer on the planet for the first time since October 2010, when 33 Chileans were trapped in a mine—yes, it’s been that long. And, yes, Woods is the owner of three PGA Tour titles already in 2013, the latest of which came Monday at Orlando’s Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge, where he won the weather-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational for a mind-blowing eighth time.
But Woods’s phoenix-from-the-ashes moment, his post-hydrant return to glory, can’t happen at Bay Hill or Doral or any other Bermuda-greened Tour stop where he has a higher winning percentage than the Globetrotters. As he himself would tell you (okay, so he might not say it, but he’s thinking it), it must happen at Augusta National. Or Merion. Or Muirfield (the Scottish one). Or Oak Hill.
The restoration must happen at a major, the tournaments by which Woods has always gauged his own greatness. And if it does, well, hold onto your flat-brimmed Puma caps, because the hunt for 19 will officially resume and Woods’s major starts, even for casual golf fans, will again become required viewing.
(RELATED PHOTOS: Tiger's 14 Major Championship Titles)
Bay Hill wasn’t exactly must-watch TV. Woods played steadily (69-70-66-70) and putted masterfully, but it was hardly vintage stuff. He had his usual woes off the tee, missing 40 percent of his fairways; on Monday, after finding his tee shot at the par-4 eighth pinned behind a tree, he unleashed a robust f-bomb. And he left his approach shots, on average, 41 feet from the hole, which was a couple feet worse than the field average. And yet … it was good enough to win. Comfortably. With a breezy and still-soggy Bay Hill yielding just four sub-70 scores in the fourth round and just one of those scores (Bill McGirt’s 68) coming from the group who finished in the top 10, Woods’s lead was never under serious threat.
Woods’s playing partner, Rickie Fowler, made a mini-run, draining three long-range birdie putts at 9, 12, and 14 to get within two strokes of Woods. But then Fowler bogeyed the par-4 15th and made a disastrous triple at the par-5 16th when he knocked his approach into the water fronting the green. Fowler took a drop, then rinsed another ball. He eventually finished a distant five shots back of Woods, in a tie for third. Justin Rose, after a 70, took solo second.
The whole day had a plodding, inexorable feel to it. Woods was 50-4 when taking a lead into the final round of a PGA Tour event (now 51-4), and he wasn’t about to add a tick to the lost column at Bay Hill, where he has now racked up more PGA Tour titles than Geoff Ogilvy has won anywhere.
“I play well here. That’s about as simple as it gets,” Woods said after his round.
Woods tied Sam Snead for the most wins at a single PGA Tour event (Gary Player’s 13 victories at the South African Open is the all-time mark on the pro tours), and he is now just five wins short of another Snead record: 82 career PGA Tour wins.
(RELATED PHOTOS: Classic Photos of Tiger's Life and Career)
Woods says he doesn’t want to be as good as he once was; he wants to be better. It’s a tantalizing thought. Better? Better than 1997, when he won the Masters by 12? Better than 2000-01, when he simultaneously held all four major titles. Better than the Hank Haney years, when Woods won almost half his starts? It’s hard to fathom. And here’s the thing: he doesn’t need to be better. He doesn’t even need to be as good. He hasn’t been in 2013, and he’s still better than everyone else. Or more consistent, anyway. Including his win at Bay Hill in 2012, Woods has won six times in his last 20 starts. That’s a .300 hit rate—good in baseball, stupid-good in golf.
And, again, that’s not necessarily so much because of his Sean Foley-styled swing as it is because of the renewed confidence he has found in his putting. After another white-hot week on the greens— over the last 36 holes, he was 30-for-31 on putts of 10 feet and in—Woods now leads the tour in Strokes Gained-Putting, making up a whopping 1.47 strokes on his competitors per round.
“He’s just in one of those stretches where the hole looks about twice the size,” Johnny Miller said on the air Monday.
“Like a peach basket,” said Miller’s colleague Roger Maltbie.
Woods will need to continue exhibiting that putting prowess if he is to snap his 0-for-14 streak at the majors and win at the Masters in three weeks. He has not prevailed at Augusta National since 2005, but he is still the heavy favorite; the British bookmaker Ladbrokes now has him at 3-1 to win, well ahead of Rory McIlroy (8-1) and Phil Mickelson (10-1).
Woods probably believes his odds are even better.