ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The birdie putt to win at Bay Hill was vintage Tiger Woods.
Not so typical was the reaction.
He backpedaled as the ball rolled toward the hole, and when he saw it fall, Woods turned and slammed his cap to the ground. It gave him a one-shot victory over Bart Bryant, his fifth victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I saw the highlights that night, and I didn’t know I went that crazy,” Woods said Wednesday. “But evidently, I did.”
Woods could use a few moments like that.
The Masters is three weeks away, and the status of Woods’ game remains somewhat of a mystery. He has played only six competitive rounds at two tournaments since reconstructive knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open last June.
Woods was reminded of how long he has been away when he arrived early Wednesday for his pro-am round. It was his first time playing a pro-am since Bay Hill last year. The Masters, U.S. Open and two World Golf Championships – the only tournaments he has played since last year – don’t have them.
He was surprised how quickly his game has returned, even if the results aren’t evident. He lost in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship and tied for ninth two weeks ago in the CA Championship at Doral.
“I think it’s taken less time to get my feel back for my game,” Woods said. “I thought it would take a little bit longer. The question mark to me was how many rounds could I play? How much golf could I play? That’s probably been the greatest positive is I’ve been able to recover from day-to-day and not feel a thing.”
The negative – especially at Doral – has been the putting.
Woods ranked 74th out of the 79 players who finished at Doral in putts per round. Then he played in the Tavistock Cup, an exhibition at Lake Nona, and didn’t make much there, either.
What’s peculiar about his victory last year was that the hat-slamming celebration had more to do with a full swing.
Woods still remembers every detail about the 18th hole, playing in the final group with Bryant already in at 9-under 271. The wind was helping from the left when he hit his tee shot, and with a hole location back and to the right, it’s a fairly simple shot.
“When we were walking up the hill, it totally switched. It came in off the right,” Woods said.
If he got his shot up in the air, the wind could drop it into the water. If he tried to ride the wind, the ball could land in the back bunker. So he settled on a shot that separates him from the rest of the field – a 5-iron from 161 yards to 25 feet.
“I just chipped a little 5-iron in there, and it felt sweet to hit that little shot, just a little bit left of the hole, right around one of the signs that we had picked out (as a target). And I left myself a putt at it.”
Would he have slammed his hat if the shot had required a simple 8-iron?
“No,” Woods said with a smile.
In his mind, great shots don’t count if he doesn’t make the putt. Call it a “Corey Pavin” moment, a reference to Pavin hitting 4-wood to about 5 feet on the 18th hole at Shinnecock Hills, only to miss the putt (but he still won the 1995 U.S. Open).
The happiest Woods has ever been in the second round of a major was at Hazeltine in the 2002 PGA Championship when he hit a stunning bunker shot with a 3-iron, over a tree into a 25 mph gust to 12 feet. Yes, he made the putt.
Will he make any at Bay Hill?
“I wasn’t that far off,” Woods said of Doral. “I hit the lip 20 times for birdie on the first three days, and that’s a lot. Some of those fall in, you get a little bit of momentum. I didn’t get any of that.”
He is the defending champion at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but not necessarily the favorite, despite winning five times.
No course has ever been more feast-or-famine for Woods. Along with those five victories, he has finished out of the top 20 four times. The Players Championship is the only tournament where he has finished out of the top 20 more often.
And the field is strong, even though it is missing six of the top 10 players in the world – Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Geoff Ogilvy, Henrik Stenson, Robert Karlsson and Camilo Villegas.
It does include Padraig Harrington, who is slowly finding his form before going to Augusta National with a chance to join Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three straight majors since the Masters began in 1934.
The Irishman has not played Bay Hill since 2000, when he didn’t break par and missed the cut.
“This is one of the tough courses on the tour,” Harrington said. “I’ll be interested to see how my game matches up to it compared to when I played it back in ’98 and 2000, and I obviously found it difficult then. I know it’s still a tough golf course, but hopefully, I’ll be a little better equipped to handle it.”
Palmer, the tournament host, has rarely been so pleased with his golf course, saying it was “as good as I have ever seen it in my 40-odd years here at the Bay Hill Club.”
Woods was particularly impressed with the greens, which are lush and smooth with heavy overseeding during the winter. And that could be what Woods needs to feel more confident about his game.
Even so, the world’s No. 1 player isn’t worried – and neither is the tournament host.
“I think he could win any tournament he wants to at this point in time,” Palmer said. “Know him as I do, he will make every effort.”