Last week, at the onset of spring, Tiger Woods returned to the city of his greatest contradictions. Orlando is where his children were born and his marriage fell apart, where he was lampooned for personal failings and hailed as arguably the greatest golfer who ever lived. Now Orlando may also be remembered as the place of his golfing resurrection.
The Bay Hill Club & Lodge, host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, has radiated constant sunshine in Woods's life. A picture of a young Woods standing between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hangs in the clubhouse dining room. Twenty-one years ago, Woods won the first of his three U.S. Junior Amateurs at Bay Hill. He had won six times as a pro there. The grounds echo with the roars from his renderings, winning birdie putts on the 18th green, jokes with Palmer in the gloaming.
Last week Bay Hill presented Woods a more lasting opportunity: a passage from personal darkness. At 36, Woods is no longer the indomitable face of the sports world. He is a divorcé with two young children, a golfer with balky body parts competing against younger men and his younger self. His once familiar inner circle has vanished or moved on. His father died, his mother is less visible than in earlier years. Two caddies hired and fired. Two swing coaches come and gone, one of them (Butch Harmon) now working with Phil Mickelson, the other (Hank Haney) writing a tell-all book about his relationship with his former pupil.
Woods has soldiered on through the noise and the silence, believing better days were ahead, that Nicklaus's record of 18 majors remained within reach.
Last Saturday night, less than 24 hours before he won on the PGA Tour for the first time in 30 months, Woods was the only golfer on the Bay Hill range. He was the 54-hole leader, a shot clear of Graeme McDowell, but his third round had ended badly, with a bogey at the 14th and a double bogey on number 15 after a snap hook out-of-bounds. The round over, Woods had more work to do. His caddie, Joe LaCava, met him on the range, as did Sean Foley, Woods's swing coach since the summer of 2010. Foley watched Woods from behind and the side, reminding him not to set up with too much weight on his left foot.
"A lot of players do that in the wind to keep [the ball] down and take loft off [the club]," Foley says. "When he gets too much on his left side, the shaft gets too steep."
Woods hit balls until dark, stopping only to change clubs and sip on a Diet Coke. The more balls he hit, the more the fog from the late-round mistakes lifted.
LaCava studied his man. Then he called his wife. "This guy is very calm," LaCava told her. "It's almost as if he knows he's going to win tomorrow."
For Woods to end a PGA Tour victory drought that had reached 923 days, he had to overcome a strong field and the sentiment that he was no longer a Sunday dominator. In January, he had lost the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi. In February, Mickelson thumped him by 11 shots while playing in the same group to win at Pebble Beach.
Woods's most immediate threat on Sunday at Bay Hill was McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion and one of several players to rise to prominence in the wake of Woods's scandal in November '09. As Woods tried to regain his form despite injury and inactivity, McDowell maintained a healthy respect for Woods while also relishing the opportunity to beat him. In December '10, Woods led McDowell by four shots in Woods's limited-field Chevron World Challenge before McDowell stole the event with a couple of birdie bombs, at the 72nd hole and on the first hole of the playoff.
At Bay Hill, McDowell looked forward to the prospect of another fight. "He's simply another guy who I have to go and try to beat," McDowell said on the eve of the final round. On Sunday, McDowell took a spot on the range only two stalls away from Woods, a challenger announcing himself in the ring.
But McDowell started the final round with a thud, making a double bogey from the fairway at the 1st to Woods's par to fall three back. McDowell did throw some haymakers — most notably a 51-footer for eagle at the 6th — but Woods countered with four birdies against two bogeys, swinging with power and precision.
He belted drivers, fairway metals and irons off the tee, shaped his low stinger in both directions and putted with confidence. At times LaCava would say "right leg" as he and Woods stood on a tee box, reminding Woods to load onto his right side and explode as Foley had discussed on the range on Saturday night. Woods swung, twirled his clubs and tossed away broken tees. It was the Tiger of 2000, an old song back in rotation.
The better Woods played, the more animated the gallery became, sprinting from tee boxes to greens and shouting to Woods. Bring the pain, Tiger. Green jacket, Tiger. Welcome back, Tiger.
Cellphones went off, fans sneaked under the ropes for a closer peek at Woods, only to get waved back by police and marshals. Two weeks after he walked off Doral in the middle of the final round with a strained left Achilles tendon, Woods put a stranglehold on a tournament once again. In U.S. Open-like conditions, he was the only player in the last eight pairings to break par. He beat McDowell by five shots, won his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational and his 72nd PGA Tour event.
"Pure joy," said Woods.
Said LaCava, "Even a guy like that still needs to win to have confidence. He's definitely back. He thinks he's going to win every tournament. He probably wishes the Masters started tomorrow."
Even against a deep and talented field — with Mickelson, McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, among others — Woods's road to get from 14 to 18 majors suddenly doesn't look as long. With good health and comfort in his swing, he has rediscovered his accuracy and distance. He peppered the fairways and greens at Bay Hill and feasted on the long holes, making birdie on 12 of the 16 par-5s. He ranked fourth in putting.
Still, Foley says, Woods is only halfway to making swings without having to verbalize what he's trying to do, the difference between going from "consciously competent to unconsciously competent."
But let's be honest. Woods might not need to be in that state to win the Masters. He has only won four times at Augusta National. Even with nothing close to his A game, he tied for fourth there the last two years. So it was a bit of an understatement when he said on Sunday, "I understand how to play Augusta National. It's simply a matter of executing the game plan."
Whether it is a sustained comeback or a solitary flourish, Woods has fresh motivations for his golf. Daughter Sam, 4, and son Charlie, 3, are old enough to know what their father does for a living. That, on its own, inspires him. At the Honda Classic, at which Woods tied for second, Charlie watched from the gallery on Friday, Sam on Saturday. The following week at Doral, Woods stood on the practice range showing Jason Day video of Charlie's golf swing. The relationship between parent and child launched Woods's genius. Maybe it will happen again.
The Bay Hill trophy presentation was incomplete this year. Late in the day, Palmer, 82, was rushed to a hospital after a blood-pressure scare. Woods went on Twitter to send Palmer a get-well message and thank the fans of Orlando, Woods's home until he moved downstate to Jupiter Island last year.
The sky above Bay Hill was nearly dark when Woods was shuttled to the players' parking lot in a courtesy car. He popped the trunk on his black Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG and tossed in his golf shoes, trading them for a pair of sneakers. He turned his cap backward. He autographed a golf glove for a friend of LaCava's. He packed his dinner — two turkey sandwiches with lettuce and tomato, no mayo, and two Diet Cokes — for the ride to Jupiter.
"His win, not my win," Foley said. "I'm happy for him. It's good for golf. Those people running in the fairways and doing all that…"
Foley let the thought hang before disappearing into the near dark, carrying a beer in an Arnold Palmer paper cup. LaCava looked to find a late dinner. Alone again, Woods stepped on the gas and pointed his car south. Bay Hill was in his rear-view mirror. It's full speed ahead to the Masters.