How does a player come to flat-out own a course like Tiger owns Bay Hill?

How does a player come to flat-out own a course like Tiger owns Bay Hill?

Tiger Woods tied Sam Snead’s record for most victories at the same course and pulled five back of Slammin’ Sammy’s mark for career Tour wins.
Fred Vuich / Sports Illustrated

Just for fun, type this into your search window: “Who owns Bay Hill?”

The first few results will give you the literal answer: Arnold Palmer, who purchased the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1974 and turned its Dick Wilson–designed championship course into his personal playground. But if you scroll down, you’ll find plenty of claims that “Tiger Woods owns Bay Hill.”

Palmer has the deed, you might say, but Tiger has the deeds.

Woods demonstrated that on Monday by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the eighth time, tying Sam Snead’s record for most PGA Tour victories in the same tournament. It was Woods’s third triumph of the season and the 77th of his career, five fewer than Snead’s record of 82 Tour victories, and it returned him to No. 1 in the World Ranking after months—nay, years—of swing rehab.

Tiger’s ownership of Bay Hill was on people’s minds even before he sealed his two-shot victory over Justin Rose in a final round interrupted by violent thunderstorms and an overnight wait. Palmer, at his pretournament press conference, floated an explanation that might have been ­written by Yogi Berra. “What I would suggest,” said the King, “is that the course is not overly long, but it’s consistently long.” Woods, meanwhile, didn’t even try to explain his mastery of central Florida’s best-known layout. “I don’t know,” he said with a rhetorical shrug. “It’s just one of those courses.”

To be precise, Bay Hill is one of four courses that Woods treats like a timeshare. He’s a seven-time winner of the WGC-Cadillac ­Championship (on Doral Resort’s Blue Monster Course in Miami), the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio) and the Farmer’s Insurance Open (at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, Calif.). Torrey Pines, Woods pointed out last Saturday, was already an octo­peat in his mind, “but I guess no one counts the U.S. Open.”

At first glance, geography seems to be the common denominator for event dominators. Snead snared his eight Greater Greensboro Open wins in North Carolina, no more than five hours by mountain roads from his West Virginia home. Karrie Webb, the LPGA Hall of Famer, won the Australian Masters eight times at Royal Pines Resort in her native Queensland.

Woods, one can’t help noticing, grew up less than 100 miles from Torrey Pines, and for 14 years he resided in the Isleworth subdivision of Windermere, Fla., fewer than 100 lob-wedge shots from Bay Hill. But the proximity theory doesn’t explain Tiger’s dominance in Akron. Neither does it add to our understanding of Jack Nicklaus and Augusta National, which the Golden Bear owned to the tune of six green jackets. (Nicklaus, from Ohio, is a longtime Florida resident.)

Exposure at a young age may be a factor. Woods was 15, in 1991, when he won the first of his three straight USGA Junior Amateur Championships on Arnie’s course. In his first start there as a pro, in 1997, he tied for ninth. He won in his near-perfect season of 2000, and then reeled off three more in a row. Ever since your typical API resembles a production of Camelot with Palmer, as Arthur, giving Woods-Lancelot a grin and a thumbs-up from the King’s box above the 18th green.

Some years Tiger wins by a bunch (11 strokes in 2003, five in 2012); some years he wins by a whisker (three one-stroke triumphs). This time he won it mostly with his putter, making 390 feet of putts over the four rounds to the discouragement of Rose and Bill Haas, who led at the halfway point, and Rickie Fowler, whose Monday charge fizzled when he hit two balls into the water at the par-5 16th.

The one essential key to serial winning, if you think about it, is returning. Woods builds his schedule around courses, like Bay Hill, that fit his eye and build his confidence, and he avoids quirkier venues like Riviera Country Club, where he has never won in 11 starts. Most pros do the same to a greater or lesser degree. Palmer, for example, was partial to the winter conditions in California’s Coa­chella Valley, where he racked up eight of his 62 career victories.

But Woods doesn’t want his courses to be patsies; he favors tough tracks that mimic major-championship conditions. Since 2007, when the Players Championship moved from March to May, Arnie’s tournament has been his final tune-up for the Masters, where Tiger has won four of his 14 majors but none since 2005. You could see the intent in Woods’s shotmaking last week. It featured fewer of the soft cuts he employed to great effect in his recent wins at Torrey Pines and Doral and more of the tight draws he’ll need to get at some of Augusta National’s edge-hugging pins. His shots whistled through the air with a consistent authority, reminding his peers of the Tiger who used to intimidate with the mere sound of his ball striking.

“Yeah, it’s taken me a little while,” Woods said after a third-round 66, summing up three-plus years of tabloid notoriety, injuries, swing changes and no progress in his pursuit of Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles. “I think I had to get physically strong enough to do it, [but] I’ve gotten better and better.” He made the same point more emphatically on the eve of the tournament, when a reporter asked him if he could ever be as good as he used to be. “I don’t want to become as good as I once was,” Woods said bluntly. “No, I don’t. I want to become better.”

Bay Hill, he has proved time and time again, is just one of those courses where that can happen.