Tiger conquers Bay Hill with dramatic putt

Tiger conquers Bay Hill with dramatic putt

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Tiger Woods was so focused that he forgot he had spiked his cap after sinking the decisive 24-foot birdie putt.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Nothing, it seems, can stop Tiger Woods. Not bad
greens, late-night baby feedings, a faltering swing, crosstown
traffic … not even the ghost of Byron Nelson.

Certainly
none of his fellow competitors are up to the task. Woods
delivered another classic performance at last week’s Arnold
Palmer Invitational, surviving a back-nine dogfight and
seizing the tournament with a walk-off birdie on the 72nd hole.

The latest
heroics kept Woods undefeated in 2008, and with his sixth straight worldwide
victory dating to last fall he is more than halfway to Nelson’s epic record of 11 in a row, set in 1945. Woods is winning
with such ease he’s making a mockery of
how difficult tournament golf really is, or
is supposed to be.

“I don’t think people in general, and
maybe even the average golf fan, can appreciate
exactly what Tiger is doing,” said
Bart Bryant, the runner-up at Bay Hill Club
and Lodge in Orlando and a 15-year veteran
who has three career Tour victories. “I
mean, they appreciate it. I just don’t think
they understand the magnitude of what
he’s accomplishing.”

The truly frightening thing is that by his own incomparable standards Woods
was pretty mediocre for much of last week.

During an even-par 70 first round he struggled
with his distance control, hitting only
10 greens in regulation. Among the lowlights
were a fatted sand wedge short of
the 5th green and a pitching wedge that he
blew clear over the 15th green.

“I just didn’t
hit my irons clean today,” Woods said.

It was more of the same on Friday as his
swing was off-plane and his nose out of
joint. Bay Hill’s greens had been ravaged
by an infestation of nematodes, voracious
little worms that have little respect for golf
courses, and the bumpy, inconsistent putting
surfaces were particularly vexing to a
perfectionist like Woods.

He has dedicated
his career to eliminating chance, but at
Bay Hill every putt was a crapshoot, and
for two days it seemed to drain some of
Woods’s usual intensity. On the greens he
wore an exasperated smile throughout a
second-round 68, which left him languishing
in 20th place, seven behind leader Vijay
Singh, a longtime antagonist. Of course,
Tiger never stops fighting, and following
the round he said, “I’ll do some work tonight and probably do a little work tomorrow
morning, and I’ll be all right.”

With that Woods lit out of Bay Hill and
weaved through a few miles of traffic back
to his lair in the Isleworth community,
where he could grind on his game in seclusion.
(Construction of Woods’s dream
house is about to begin at his $44.5 million
compound on the east coast of Florida,
on Jupiter Island.) Among Woods’s many
gifts is a knack for self-diagnosis. Says his
instructor, Hank Haney, “He knows his
swing so well that he can almost always
fix it on his own.”

A startling example of this came last
month at the Dubai Desert Classic. After
Woods had chopped his way to a third-round
73, during which he visited groves
of palm trees, patches of desert sand and,
on the final hole, a water hazard, he cured
himself by working on the range and then
in front of a mirror in his hotel room.

In the
final round he came back with an airtight
65 to storm to one of the more memorable
victories of his career.

Last Saturday at Bay Hill, Woods looked
like a different player, which is to say, he
looked like himself. He birdied three of the
first four holes to announce his intentions,
looking increasingly comfortable on greens
that got faster as the week wore on. On the
15th hole he hit a quintessential Tiger shot,
carving a four-iron around a stand of trees
to within two feet, and he stuffed his approach
on the next hole too.

Woods’s 66 got
him back in the tournament, but it took a
comedy of errors to propel him into a share
of the lead.

It long ago became an accepted fact around the Tour that other players start
gagging as soon as Woods’s name appears
on the leader board; the only difference at
Bay Hill was that it happened on Saturday
instead of on Sunday.

Singh seemed to
have control of the tournament until Woods
climbed into contention, at which point the
big Fijian played a four-hole stretch in five
over par, dumping three balls into the water
along the way.

This opened the door for
Nick Watney to shoot into the lead with an
eagle on the 12th hole, his second big bird
of the round. Watney gave back those four
shots with a quadruple bogey on the 16th
hole. Watney ceded the lead to Bryant,
who immediately splashed his
approach on the 16th.

Woods was
suddenly atop the leader board and
heading into the final round was
tied with Bryant and three others.

The bad news for them: Of the 45
previous times that Woods had at
least a share of the 54-hole lead, he
closed the deal 42 times.

Looking ahead to the final
round, coleader (and Tiger’s
frequent practice-
round playing
partner) Bubba Watson said, “No
matter what he does, it’s going to
be incredible, and it’s going to be
unbelievable.”

When Woods birdied the 2nd hole
on Sunday to nab the solo lead, the
outcome seemed preordained, especially
once he buried sizable putts to save
par on the next two holes. Woods has been
putting out of his mind for months, and it’s
not by accident.

“His putting is a lot better
this year because he has worked hard on it,”
says Haney.

In recent years Woods has spent
so many hours grooving his swing changes
that his putting suffered ever so slightly.

“He
has always made the pressure putts, but he’s
much more consistent now,” says Haney,
noting that Woods had only one three-putt
in his first 14 rounds this year. “That’s pretty
damned good, especially when you consider
all the putts he’s making.”


Woods three-putted again on Bay Hill’s
baked-out 10th green, from inside seven
feet. (For the week those would be his
only two misses in 63 attempts from nine
feet and in.) The three-putt dropped him
into a tie with Bryant, a crusty 45-year-old
who has been through Q school six
times.

Bryant gamely kept the pressure
on with three back-nine birdies, and they
were still tied as Woods, in the final group,
played the 441-yard, par-4 18th, one of
the most exacting finishing holes in golf.

After an ideal drive Woods was 177 yards
out, to a pin tucked on a shallow finger of
green guarded by water in front and bunkers
beyond. Naturally he summoned what he
would call “the best swing I made all week,”
a five-iron that rifled
through a swirling
wind.

Woods was left with 24 feet, downhill,
left to right, a near replica of the clutch putt
he had made on the 72nd hole in Dubai.

As Woods was sizing up this potential
game-winner, Arnold Palmer materialized
behind the green, looking devilishly handsome
in a blue blazer. The King knows a
thing or two about Sunday
charges, and he began telling
anyone who would listen that
the putt was as good as in.

Woods’s wife, Elin, didn’t look
so sure — she was nervously nibbling
on a corner of her plastic
I.D. badge. (Baby Sam was not on the property,
though Dad would give her credit for
some of his fine play, saying, “I have a great
balance in my life right now. A little lack
of sleep has probably made me a little bit
better.”)

Next to Elin was Watson, who had
just finished his round but stuck around,
saying, “I’m here as a fan.” Watson has so
much respect for Tiger that he sometimes
refers to him as Mr. Woods, but Bubba was
pessimistic about the looming putt. “I don’t
think it’s in,” he said. “I just had that putt.
It’s impossible to read.”

But another difference between Woods
and just about everybody else is
the course knowledge he has accrued,
so much of it in victory. In
2001 at Bay Hill he made a birdie
putt on the 72nd hole to trump Phil
Mickelson. According to Woods’s
caddie, Steve Williams, the difference
between that putt and the
one Woods faced seven years later
was only six inches.

Said Woods,
“I kept telling myself, I’ve done
this before, and I can do it again.”

Woods’s stroke was so pure, his
line and speed so perfect, that he
started backpedaling in celebration
when the ball was still four or
five feet from the hole. When the
putt dropped, he spiked his hat to
the ground, a display of pent-up
emotion he could not recall later.
(“When Stevie handed me my hat I was,
like, How the hell did he get my hat?”) Elin
jumped about three feet into the air and
then gave Watson a hug.

“Unbelievable,”
he said of the putt, not the hug. “Ridiculous.
Insane.”

Poor Bubba was still shaking
his head in disbelief as he walked to the
parking lot.

How long can the streak go on? Next up
is this week’s CA Championship, on a Doral
course where Woods has won three times.

Typically, he is leaving nothing
to chance. As he was departing
from Bay Hill, he was asked if
he would take a day off to enjoy
his dramatic victory. Tiger had
a one-word answer.

Nope.