A long road back to No. 1 for Tiger Woods

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods never questioned his ability, only his health.

Woods returned to No. 1 in the world by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, not surprising except if you consider where he was a little more than a year ago. He had not won a PGA Tour in some 2½ years. He missed most of the summer and two majors in 2011 because of injuries to his left leg and Achilles tendon. He walked off the course at Doral a year ago because of tightness in the same tendon. It wasn’t until June that he felt good enough to hit balls on the range after a round.

Instead of a limp, he now has a swagger.

After making three straight bogeys to end his second round at Bay Hill, he stayed on the range for close to an hour. When someone noticed his caddie walking away, Joe LaCava replied, “Going to get another bucket.”

Woods was at full strength in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he looked as good as ever.

Maybe better.

Woods never let anyone get closer than two shots in the final round Monday, and when they did, he always had an answer.

Rickie Fowler drained a 40-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole at Bay Hill to get within two shots, and Woods followed with a birdie putt from 25 feet, sweeping the putter into the air with his left arm and marching to the cup as it dropped.

Even after Fowler bowed out with a 7-iron that came up short and into the water — and another shot in the water that led to triple bogey — on the par-5 16th hole, Justin Rose was still in the picture only two shots behind. From a fairway bunker, Woods hit 8-iron from 178 yards to the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.

And that was that.

Woods played it safe from the rough on the final hole and made bogey for a 2-under 70, giving him a two-shot win over Rose. He tied a PGA Tour record that had not been touched in 48 years. This was his eighth win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 16 appearances. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times from 1938 to 1965.

“If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” Woods said. “I know I can be where I’m contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day in and day out — if I got healthy. That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned.”

It turned the corner on two wheels.

Dating to that win at Bay Hill last year — the first for Woods on the PGA Tour since September 2009 — he has won six of his last 20 starts.

Is he back?

Woods never liked that question, perhaps because he’s never sure how far he’s going. And in his mind, golf is a game in which a player never arrives.

“I’m getting there,” Woods said. “I’m very pleased that some of the shots that I struggled with last year are now strengths. One of the things that we need to continue to work on is getting it more refined. Because my good ones are really good. Just making sure the bad ones aren’t that bad — whether it’s a driver, 3-wood, long iron, wedge — whatever it is, that I’m missing the ball in the correct spots. That’s getting way better.”

Perhaps the best measure of whether he’s back is that no one else is in front of him.

Woods last was atop the world ranking in the final week of October 2010, a span of 125 weeks that represented his longest spell out of the top spot. He replaced Rory McIlroy, who has a chance to get back the No. 1 ranking this week at the Houston Open.

“It’s a byproduct of hard work, patience and getting back to winning golf tournaments,” Woods said.

The next step is winning majors. His next stop is Augusta National.

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