By Ryan Lavner, Golfweek.com
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The tournament wasn’t over until Tiger Woods hit his second shot onto the green. So in the gloaming Sunday, he was head down, striding, oblivious to the “Welcome back, Tiger!” cheers that resonated all around the 18th hole at Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
This new Tiger sure looks a lot like the old one.
When his iron shot was safely aboard the 18th green, some 34 feet away, Woods turned to Joe LaCava, his caddie of five months, and said, “F-----’, yeah.” When Woods tapped in for a closing par, he ripped the ball out of the cup and screamed twice. High-definition cameras showed goosebumps on his forearms.
“I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback,” said Graeme McDowell (74), who was paired with Woods on Sunday. “It was great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all-time doing what he does best: winning golf tournaments.”
Everything looked so familiar, didn’t it? The Sunday red. The Terminator stare. The confident stride. On the range before Sunday’s final round, Woods launched iron after iron from the right side of the range, into a stiff breeze. LaCava stood behind him. Swing coach Sean Foley, dressed in all black, rotated around Woods every few swings, nodding in approval. For 20 minutes, the coach uttered not a word to the student, hovering there more to offer moral support than actual guidance.
Everything in his long game is stronger, sharper, cleaner now. LaCava told a story about how, a few years ago, Woods used to hit 5-irons about 195 yards. Earlier this week, he hit one 232, uphill, with a flight so piercing that it might as well have been on a string.
No longer does each round contain a wild miss, that fluky rope-hook out of bounds on Saturday notwithstanding. It certainly wasn’t that way the last time Woods was in a final pairing with McDowell, at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge. Only four months into his swing reconstruction with Foley, Tiger back then was able to shape the ball in only one direction, his game one-dimensional. McDowell won in a playoff.
Flash ahead 15 months. Having watched Woods hit balls until dusk on Saturday night at Bay Hill, LaCava told his wife: “This guy is calm, and it’s almost like he knows he’s going to win tomorrow.”
On Sunday, Woods won convincingly on a day more reminiscent of a major championship than a stop along the ol’ Florida Swing, our annual run-up to Augusta. The greens were baked out and crusty. The fairways were firm and fast. Even the wind was up for the first time all week.
“It was a battle of attrition,” said Woods, who won by five shots at 13-under 275.
Recently, the most feared closer in golf has looked more like a beleaguered relief pitcher. He had the lead at the Australian Open but was undone by a poor third round. He held the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi, only to shoot 75 on the final day and lose to an Englishman named Robert Rock. In position to win at one of his favorite venues, Pebble Beach, Tiger was waxed by Phil Mickelson, head-to-head, by 11 shots.
A brilliant 62 on Sunday at the Honda stirred the masses once more, offering hope that a breakthrough was imminent, but it only masked an otherwise pedestrian tournament. A week later, Woods withdrew with seven holes to play at Doral, citing a familiar injury. That was worrisome.
“I just felt that I’ve been making steps in the right direction,” Woods said. “It just had not shown up for all four days yet.”
Every week, it seemed, there was another drama, another situation to defuse.
This week wasn’t without its fair share of drama, too, at least early. During Wednesday’s pro-am, Woods abruptly stopped his downswing after hearing the click from a photographer’s camera. He grimaced and grabbed his lower back, then needed a few holes to walk it off. Meanwhile, excerpts from former instructor Hank Haney’s new book continued to pour out in the media. Many of the revelations were unflattering, portraying Woods as, among other things, rude, selfish and obsessive.
Yet none of that noise seemed to affect his play at Bay Hill.
The former World No. 1 may consider this his second title in 3 1/2 months, including the 18-player Chevron World Challenge in December, but this was different. Much different. It was his first official PGA Tour title since the BMW Championship in September 2009 - a span of 923 days - and perhaps foretold an even brighter future: Never has Woods slipped on the green jacket without winning a PGA Tour title earlier that year. Check that off the list.
“He was a man on a mission today,” LaCava said. “He was pretty jacked up. He’s out to prove himself.”
Is Tiger back? Well, no, winning one PGA Tour title certainly doesn’t mean he’s back. His comeback, whatever that is, has come in phases. First, you must win . . . something (Chevron). Then you win another (Bay Hill). And the next test, of course, is a major, and conveniently one is being contested in barely more than a week in Augusta, Ga. Majors always have been the ultimate litmus test for Woods, the standard by which he measures himself.
That Tiger of 2000, with the fist pumps and the perfect image and the intimidation factor, is never coming back. And that’s OK. Embrace it. What we’re left with is a 36-year-old divorcee chasing the most hallowed record in the game with a body that may betray him at any time. Name a more intriguing story in sports.
What’s it like, to be a winner again?
“It was pure joy,” Woods said.