Is he back? You bet, roared the galleries in Florida, who last night watched Tiger Woods add the Arnold Palmer Invitational to the WGC-Cadillac Championship he won two weeks ago.
Appropriately enough for a regal golfer, Woods received the Bay Hill trophy from the King, Arnold Palmer himself. The coronation confirmed Woods as the world’s No 1 golfer for the first time since October 2010.
The usurped Rory McIlroy has a chance to reclaim the honour at the Shell Houston Open this week. Great. That will only fire the frenzy before the Masters in a fortnight.
But don’t bother arguing the case for McIlroy, or anyone else at Augusta for that matter. There is little in sport to rival the comeback, the climb off the deck. Woods has not won a major since 2008. He has been through all sorts of personal trauma, physical and mental, since claiming his 14th major championship, the US Open at Torrey Pines, on one leg. Would he ever return to the dominant force he was at his peak? The question has rattled around the game since the nadir of Thanksgiving in 2009.
Three wins in five events by the end of March suggest he is right where he needs to be to resume the assault on the 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus. This victory was his eighth in this event, equalling the record of Sam Snead for the number of successes at one PGA Tour tournament. “It is very significant,” Palmer said. “I don’t see anybody following that for a long time. I had the opportunity to win an event five times and know how hard that was. To beat eight would be a miracle.”
Johnny Miller was more emphatic when asked to assess the threat of Woods in this phase of his career. “It’s more than here. It’s doubled up, especially with McIlroy not doing anything.” Woods could even afford a bogey at the last and still win by two from Justin Rose. Both completed their final rounds in two under par.
Of his return to No 1, Woods said: “It’s a by-product of perseverance and patience. I’ve won some tournaments in the last couple of years, as a consequence I’ve moved up. I’m pleased with the way I’m playing.” Though Orlando was dripping in hyperbole, chillingly, Woods contributed none of it. It was the matter-of-fact way he dispatched all attempts to talk him up that should really unnerve his rivals.
When asked what this meant for his prospects at the Masters, he presented the full face of the bat: “It’s the next event I play.” On technical matters he was only marginally more revealing: “It’s been a few years since I felt this good. It has been years since I have hit the ball this consistently week in, week out. I’ve been hitting it pure and made my share of putts. Stricks [Steve Stricker] helped me out at Doral and I have managed to carry that on.”
Woods broke his post-2009 duck at this event last year. Then a hospitalised Palmer was unable to present the trophy. His smiling, jaunty presence by the 18th green yesterday conferred upon events a proper sense of majesty. “He’s a living legend,” said Woods. “When you look at the 18th green and realise what they mean to the game, it is great to have these guys there.”
Woods hit fewer than 60 per cent of fairways in his final round – delayed from Sunday by storms – but ranked No 1 in strokes gained on the greens. For the most part yesterday Rickie Fowler was in his face, holing a 38-footer at the 12th to close to within two strokes of the lead. What did Woods do? He followed him in from 27ft, that’s what, raising the putter in a stiff-armed salute. Fowler came back at him again, horseshoeing in for birdie at the 14th. Woods could do no better than par, and at the 16th found a bunker off the tee with Fowler in the middle of the fairway.
Could this be the fulcrum on which providence tipped in Fowler’s favour? The splash as his ball rolled back off the slope protecting the front of the green accounted for that romantic idea. A second ball into the drink was the prelude to an eight. Woods found the green and two-putted for his birdie. From there it was a procession straight into the arms of Arnie.
Woods will not be seen in competition before the Masters. After Houston, McIlroy heads to Haiti to renew his acquaintance with victims of the 2010 earthquake, whom he visited in 2011 before going on to Congressional to win the US Open by eight shots. Woods was not in the field that week. Depending on outcomes this week, perhaps it would be more fitting were Woods and McIlroy issued with boxing gloves at Augusta.