TAMPA (CBS Tampa/AP) — Tiger Woods is officially back on the prowl.
The golf superstar is closing in on the No. 1 ranking heading into this weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill after two strong wins at Torrey Pine and Doral this year. (As of this publishing, Woods is four strokes off the lead after the first round.) If Woods conquers Bay Hill, he will be the top golfer in the world again for the first time since 2010.
Woods has painfully and gradually made it back since falling to his lowest point in November 2009. It was then that a car accident outside his Florida home opened a Pandora’s Box of affairs that led to his divorce from model Elin Nordegren. As the number of alleged infidelities grew, his list of endorsements shrunk. In February 2010 he issued a televised statement in which he admitted attending a 45-day therapy program for his “foolish” behavior.
The stress from his personal life seemed to have a tremendous effect his performance on the golf course. He fell to No. 58 in the world in November 2011 battling nagging injuries and fallout from his divorce.
But now, Woods has seemingly roared back following a solid 2012 campaign and coming out of the gates stronger than ever in 2013. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that his rise back to the top correlates with his relationship to Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
Rumors began swirling late last year that the superstar athletes were dating. Vonn tried to put those rumors to rest in December, telling the Denver Post that the two were “just friends.”
“My brother was the ski instructor for his kids this November in Vail,” Vonn said at the time. “Guessing that’s where it came from.”
The story continued to heat up, though, as Woods reportedly took his private jet to Austria last month while Vonn was competing in a skiing event. There were also reports that the pair spent a week on his yacht earlier this year.
Finally, the couple decided to make it “official” on Facebook this week.
“This season has been great so far and I’m happy with my wins at Torrey and Doral. Something nice that’s happened off the course was meeting Lindsey Vonn,” Woods posted on his Facebook page. “Lindsey and I have been friends for some time, but over the last few months we have become very close and are now dating. We thank you for your support and for respecting our privacy. We want to continue our relationship, privately, as an ordinary couple and continue to compete as athletes.”
Said Vonn: “I guess it wasn’t a well-kept secret but yes, I am dating Tiger Woods. Our relationship evolved from a friendship into something more over these past few months and it has made me very happy.”
Woods claimed he decided to make the relationship public in order to “devalue” photographs snapped by what he referred to as the “stalkarazzi.”
While Woods’s personal life is getting back on track, fellow golfers are noticing that he is playing his best golf in years.
“I think as difficult as [Doral] played last year on Sunday afternoon, I watched the Tiger Woods that’s won 14 major championships,” Graeme McDowell said. “I watched a display of discipline. Conservative at times, but firing away from pins. When the golf course gets tougher, the guy is able to slip into a gear where he plays aggressive golf to conservative targets. When he’s playing well, he’s hard to beat.”
Woods believes that his dominant play to start the year is a sign of greater things to come.
“We’re still getting better,” Woods said. “Things are still becoming more efficient. These two wins I’ve had this year, I’ve built myself some nice leads, which means that I’ve played really well, and things are starting to come around and become more efficient day in and day out.”
Woods is still stuck at 14 majors, his last one coming at the 2008 U.S. Open when he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff while playing on a broken leg. His comeback has many chattering that he can break the record of 18 majors held by Jack Nicklaus.
“I think right now looking at him and watching him play, as I have recently, he looks probably as strong and as good from a golf perspective as I’ve ever seen him,” golf legend Palmer said. “I think his swing and his posture and his attitude is far better than it’s been in some time. … I give him a chance to do the record. I suppose that every year it’s a little more fleeting, however, and he’ll have to really work hard to keep himself up and keep his mental attitude if he’s going to do it.”
“I still think he’ll break my record,” Nicklaus said. “Tiger’s talent, at 37 … it’s not that old. I won four after that. They were spread out. It wasn’t that difficult. I don’t think for Tiger to get four or five more – or six or seven – is that big a stretch.”
Woods has a chance to add to his collection at the Masters next month.
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