ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — His ball safely over the water, Tiger Woods walked toward the 18th green Sunday as he had done over the last 30 months on the PGA Tour, with one big difference.
There was no mistaking that smile.
“Pure joy,” he said.
Woods finally brought the buzz back to the very thing that made him famous — winning.
Two weeks after another injury scare, Woods looked dominant as ever in that bright red shirt to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. It was his first PGA Tour victory since a sex scandal at the end of 2009 led to one of the greatest downfalls in sports.
And with the Masters only two weeks away, Woods looks more capable than ever of resuming his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus in the majors.
Woods closed with a 2-under 70 and won by five shots over Graeme McDowell.
“I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback,” McDowell said. “Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best — winning golf tournaments.”
Woods had gone 923 days and 27 tour events since he last posed with a trophy, and it showed.
Kneeling to look at his line as he waited his turn to putt on the 18th, Woods tapped his putter on the ground and could barely contain a grin, knowing that the longest PGA Tour drought of his career was about to end. When he tapped in for par, he clenched his fist, screamed out, “Yeah!” and hugged his caddie, Joe LaCava.
Walking off the green, Woods extended his black cap for a sweeping wave toward the gallery.
“It’s not like winning a major championship or anything,” Woods said. “But it certainly feels really good.”
The question two weeks ago was when he could play again. Now, it’s whether he can get back to being the player who once ruled golf. It was the 16th time in his career that Woods has won by at least five shots, and it was the largest margin of victory on the PGA Tour since Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open by eight.
Woods downplayed the significance of Sunday, pointing out on more than one occasion that he considers it his second win since the scandal. He counts the Chevron World Challenge last December, when he went birdie-birdie to beat an 18-man field of top-50 players.
But this was significant — a PGA Tour event with a full field, and a strong field at that. And with a performance so clean that he was never seriously challenged on the back nine.
“I’ve gotten better, and that’s the main thing,” Woods said. “I’ve been close for a number of tournaments now. And it was just a matter of staying the course and staying patient, keeping working on fine-tuning what we’re doing. And here we are.”
The only thing missing was the host himself.
Palmer’s blood pressure increased during the final round from new medications, and he was taken to the hospital about 15 minutes before the tournament ended as a precaution. Alaistair Johnston, vice chairman at IMG and his longtime business manager, said Palmer would be kept overnight. “Nobody is overly concerned,” he said.
Woods goes to No. 6 in the world, returning to the top 10 for the first time since May 22.
“Heading home now and I can’t stop smiling. Thanks to Otown fans and everyone watching for all the love. Get well soon, Arnie,” Woods tweeted about three hours after his win.
He finished at 13-under 275 for his 72nd PGA Tour win, one short of Nicklaus for second place on the career list. But that’s not the record Woods wants. He has 14 majors, four short of the Nicklaus standard, and he tries to end a four-year drought at the Masters, which starts April 5.
“I am excited, no doubt,” Woods said. “I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built here.”
It was the first time Woods had all four rounds under par since he returned from his personal crisis at the 2010 Masters.
McDowell made a 45-foot birdie putt and a 50-foot eagle putt early in the round to try to stay close, though he was never closer than two shots after starting with a double bogey. He closed with a 74.
Ernie Els failed in his bid to get into the Masters. The three-time major champion started the final round three shots behind, but twice missed par putts inside 3 feet and shot 75. He would have needed a two-way tie for second to crack the top 50 in the world. Instead, he tied for fourth and moved up only four spots to No. 58. He will have to win the Houston Open next week to avoid missing the Masters for the first time since 1993.
This day belonged to Woods, as it used to at Arnie’s place.
Only two weeks ago, Woods was taken off the course at Doral in the middle of the final round with tightness in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that caused him to miss three months last year, including two majors. It turned out to be a mild strain, and Sunday was the eighth straight day that Woods played golf — starting with a practice round last Sunday at Augusta.
LaCava called him that Sunday night at Doral, after Woods had spoken to doctors, and said “you could hear the relief.”
His injuries have received more attention in the last year than the personal life crisis that cost him his marriage and corporate support. But in the last week, former coach Hank Haney’s book — “The Big Miss” — was mailed out to various media outlets, another distraction for Woods. The book goes on sale Tuesday.
While it deals mainly with Haney’s six years teaching Woods, it raises questions about Woods’ fascination with the Navy SEALs and whether that contributed to his injuries. It also portrays Woods as self-centered and rarely satisfied, a side of him that Woods has sought to keep private for so many years.
The win at Bay Hill, his record seventh in the event, puts the chatter back on golf.
“He was a man on a mission today,” LaCava said. “He was pretty jacked up. He was out there to prove himself.”
Woods won against a full field for the first time since the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, 2009. Twelve days later, Woods ran his car into a fire hydrant, and revelations poured on about his extramarital affairs. He has not been the same since then, and players began to wonder if his mystique could ever return.
This was a step. A big step.
Woods renewed his reputation as golf’s greatest closer, winning for the 38th time in 40 attempts when he had the lead going into the final round.
It was McDowell who took down Woods in a shocker at the end of 2010 by rallying from four shots down to beat him at the Chevron World Challenge, something long considered unthinkable. And it was McDowell, speaking for so many others on tour, who suggested last August that the red shirt on Sunday was not as intimidating as once was.
McDowell was as formidable as ever. He couldn’t keep up.
The former U.S. Open champion gave Woods a big cushion on the opening hole when his approach buried so badly in the bunker that only the top half of the ball could be seen. He blasted out through the green into another bunker and made double bogey. That gave Woods a three-shot lead, and McDowell never got closer than two the rest of the way.
But he put up a good fight. McDowell took a free drop from a sprinkler head, going from the rough to the fringe, and holed a 45-foot birdie putt after Woods was already in tight for birdie.
Woods hit a towering 3-iron from 267 yards over the water on the par-5 sixth, and before he could attempt his eagle putt from just outside 15 feet, McDowell made his from 50 feet.
Woods was in total control of all aspects of his game, the final two holes of the front nine showed it. Woods hit an 8-iron from 182 yards that cleared the bank by a few yards and rolled within 4 feet for birdie on No. 8. And on the next hole, McDowell missed a 4-foot par putt to fall four shots behind.
McDowell missed three putts inside 10 feet early on the back nine — one of them for par — and then was merely along for the ride.
“He’s going to be a force at Augusta,” said Ian Poulter, who shot 74 and finished third.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.