ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods had not felt such an adrenaline rush in nine months, especially when he stood over a 12-foot birdie putt Sunday at Bay Hill with only enough sunlight remaining for one last shot.
It made Woods forget that it had been nine months since he played under so much pressure.
And then he made golf remember the magic it had been missing.
With cameras flashing in the approaching darkness, Woods delivered another rock-star moment by making a birdie on the final hole to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one shot and match the largest comeback in his PGA Tour career.
“It feels good to be back in contention, to feel the rush,” Woods said. “It’s been awhile, but God, it felt good.”
It sure looked that way.
Just like last year, when Woods made a 25-foot birdie on the final hole at Bay Hill to win by one, he crouched and backpedaled as the putt rolled toward the cup. But instead of slamming his cap to the ground, he gave a roundhouse fist pump and ran into the arms of caddie Steve Williams, who lifted him off the ground in celebration.
Welcome back, Tiger.
“Last year … there wasn’t any big comeback or anything. I was out there just competing as usual,” Woods said. “This time, it was a little bit different. I hadn’t been in the mix since the U.S. Open, so it was neat to feel the heat on the back nine again.”
Starting the final round five shots behind, Woods closed with a 3-under 67 for a one-shot victory over hard-luck Sean O’Hair. It was the third time he won at Bay Hill with a birdie putt on the 18th hole, and this uphill putt was the easiest of all.
But it was just as sweet, especially walking off the green to see a beaming tournament host.
“What was it I told you last year?” Palmer said as he grabbed Woods by the shoulder.
Palmer has seen enough of Woods to know what to expect. Woods won at Bay Hill for the sixth time, the fourth PGA Tour event he has won at least that often.
Woods had not been atop the leaderboard since he won the U.S. Open in a 19-hole playoff last June. He had reconstructive surgery on his left knee a week later, and missed the next eight months.
With two indifferent results, there were questions whether he would be ready for the Masters in two weeks.
Woods donned the blue blazer that goes to the Bay Hill winner. That could go a long way toward winning another jacket at Augusta National, different color.
“Certainly, this win definitely validates all the things I’ve been trying to do,” Woods said.
O’Hair made only one birdie and closed with a 73, but he steadied himself along the back nine until a crucial mistake on the 16th hole, when he went at the flag with Woods in the rough. His 7-iron came up short and into the water, leading to a bogey.
“I think what happened is when the sun was going down a little bit, I guess that kind of proved to me that the ball wasn’t quite going as far,” O’Hair said.
He might be right, for Woods ran into the same problem a hole later. He posed over a 4-iron that he thought was flush, tongue hanging out of his mouth like Michael Jordan when he knew a shot was going in. This one plugged under the lip of the front bunker, and Woods made bogey to fall into a tie.
That set up the dramatic finish with only minutes of daylight remaining, thanks to a two-hour rain delay in the morning.
It was the second straight year that O’Hair had to watch Woods celebrate. They were in the final group a year ago when Woods made his big birdie putt to beat Bart Bryant. This one stung even more.
“It’s just a little bit disappointing that I couldn’t close it,” O’Hair said.
Woods finished at 5-under 275 and won $1.08 million for his 66th career victory. Only once in his career has Woods failed to win a PGA Tour even in the three months leading to the Masters, but more Bay Hill magic took care of that.
Zach Johnson shot 69 and finished third, although he was treated to quite a show playing in the last group.
“I tried to stay in my own world, and for the most part I did that,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of hard when you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Obviously Tiger, when he needs to step up, he does it. It was impressive to watch.”
Woods was running out of holes until he came up with two clutch putts, the kind he has made throughout his career.
The most pivotal came at the 14th, when he was one shot behind and caught yet another plugged lie under the lip of a bunker. Woods did well to blast out to just over 12 feet, while O’Hair had 15 feet for birdie. Make it, and he could go up by three.
O’Hair narrowly missed, and Woods holed his putt for par. On the next hole, Woods made a 25-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead.
There were three lead changes over the final three holes, and a predictable winner.
It was a struggle from the start for O’Hair.
He didn’t hit a fairway until the sixth hole, and he didn’t have a birdie putt inside 30 feet until the ninth hole. The game was on after a two-shot swing on the third hole, when O’Hair missed the green to the right and made bogey, and Woods made an 8-footer for his second straight birdie to close within two shots.
They were separated by one shot for most of the back nine, with momentum seemingly on Woods’ side, but not the lead. That didn’t come until the 16th hole, and then he needed one more clutch shot to return to a familiar place.
“It’s like Stevie was saying out there,” Woods said of caddie Steve Williams. “This feels like we hadn’t left. You just remember how to do it. It hasn’t been that long for me, but you just have that feel of what to do. And it’s a matter of getting it done.”