A few miles from Bay Hill Club and Lodge,Tiger Woods ran into a fire hydrant,and out gushed sordid details of his private life. Two years later,in November 2011,he reached rock bottom in his professional life,dropping to No. 58 in the world rankings. Woods joked around with Arnold Palmer after winning Palmers tournament for the eighth time.
Gilded to gilded,gold dust to gold dust,Woods returned to golfs zenith,not far from where he plunged from grace,with a victory Monday at the weather-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational. Completing the final 16 holes of his fourth round,Woods carded a two-under 70 to win by two strokes and overtake the world No. 1,Rory McIlroy,who skipped the event but is to return to action this week in Houston.
What can you say? said Palmer,83,who collected 62 PGA Tour titles,15 fewer than Woods. Unbelievable performance for him. Hes been playing good all his life and he showed it again today.
Woods finished at 13-under 275 for his first back-to-back wins since 2009. With the victory,his third of the season and his second of the monthlong Florida swing,Woods supplanted the star of the West Coast swing,Brandt Snedeker,who had a win,two seconds and a third,as the prohibitive favorite at the Masters,which begins April 11. Four of Woodss 14 major titles have come at Augusta National,where he last won in 2005.
It feels good to know that all the hard work has paid off to get me to this point, said Woods,who posted three eagles at Bay Hill,one fewer than he had in all of 2012. Three times,in 2000,2003 and 2008,Woods won events before the Masters,including Palmers tournament.
But there can be no comparing him then with him now. In 2000 and 2003,he was not married,much less divorced with joint custody of two small children. In 2008,knee injuries forced him off the tour for eight months. Those were the days when Woodss world was neatly compartmentalised,his focus fully on whatever challenges presented themselves between the gallery ropes.
His margin of victory in 2003 was 11 strokes over Stewart Cink,Brad Faxon,Kenny Perry and Kirk Triplett. There is no comparing the competition then and now. The talent pool is deeper,the fields strengthened by a younger generation inspired by Woods to master the sport and replete with games patterned after Woodss.
It was hardly a surprise that two of the tours fresh faces,Fowler,24,and Bradley,26,were among those applying the heat on Woods. Fowler was 8 years old in June 1997 when Woods first reached No. 1,where he stayed for 623 nonconsecutive weeks. Injuries and off-course issues punctured Woodss aura of invincibility in recent years. Fowler and Bradley joined the tour after Woodss last major victory,at the 2008 United States Open,so they have never had their psyches bruised by battling Woods at his best. They have absorbed Woodss strengths but not many of his beatings. Bubba Watson,the reigning Masters champion,whose 67 on Sunday stood up as the lowest final-round score,called Woods the greatest golfer ever.
Watson said: But you have to remember,the competition is better. Since he hurt himself,there are younger kids coming up. There are people coming over here and playing more. The whole world is growing,and they know how to train and how to practice because theyve been watching him. So everyone knows how to get better at the game.
After watching Woods secure a sixth official tour victory in his past 20 stroke-play starts dating to this event last year,the next generation can sense that its coronation has been put off indefinitely. This is the Tiger that I grew up watching, Bradley said.
Before entering the interview tent to meet with reporters,Woods lingered outside and scrolled through the texts on his smartphone. He could have stood there until nightfall and not thumbed replies to all the messages left by well-wishers. It made him feel good,he said,which raised a question: when was the last time his game and his life have felt so in sync heading into the years first major? Woods said,Its been a few years.