Found March 27, 2012 on Extra Pine Tar:
Fifteen years from now, maybe we'll think of  the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday as the opening scene of the second act to the greatest career in golf history. It sure felt like it was the start of something special. Starting the day with a one stroke lead over Graeme McDowell, Tiger Woods suddenly turned back the clock and did what he always did when he used to have a 54-hole lead - win the tournament. Tiger ended up shooting a 2-under par 70, and he won comfortably - almost dominantly - over the rest of the field. It was a five-shot victory, and it was done in such typical pre-fire hydrant Tiger fashion that the outcome was barely ever in doubt. It had all the elements of a vintage Tiger Woods win. He took care of business with the lead. His playing partner, McDowell, wilted, missing putt after putt to shoot 74. The rest of the field followed suit, shrinking away from the man at the top. Ian Poulter, the man who once said that there would be a day when the tour would come down to just him and Tiger fighting to win tournaments, carded a sterling 74 to finish a distant third place, seven shots back. When it was all said and done, Tiger had grinded out pars on a regular basis, made some clutch putts and didn't declare victory until his ball was safely on the 18th green. It was the kind of performance that we used to marvel at pre-scandal. Maybe now we can get used to it happening a little more post-scandal, too. It took 30 official starts and 923 days since Tiger last won at the 2009 BWM Championship on September 13 of that year, but when he he raised his arms to the crowd after his final putt, it was like he never left. Think about how he did it. While shooting a 70 isn't usually something to write home about, Tiger shot the third lowest round of anybody on the day and the lowest round of anybody in the final five groups. He missed a medium-length par putt on the second hole, but that was essentially his only real blemish of the entire day. He did make another bogey on the 14th hole, but McDowell bogeyed as well. Then, on the 15th, for all intents and purposes. Holding on to a four-stroke lead, Tiger faced a 10-footer for par. Just like he seemed to do every single time for the past decade and a half, he buried the putt right in the middle and followed it with a signature Eldrick fist pump. It goes deeper than just winning, though. That's the point I'm driving at here. Had Tiger won a few weeks ago when he shot the final round 62 and eventually lost by two strokes to Rory McIlroy, that would have been unbelievable. But it wouldn't have been the same as what happened on Sunday. Tiger grabbed the lead on the back nine of the second round on Sunday and then never let it go. He had at least a share of the lead for the final 38 holes. And the part of his game that had clearly not recovered from the Ambien abuse the most - his putting - finally came around. He missed three putts all week from inside 10 feet. Out of 50. That's staggering. I should also mention that he hit 59 out of 72 greens. He was first in total driving. He was the only player to shoot under par in all four rounds. You could just see the confidence when he swung. I can't tell you how many times I turned around to the people I was with and said, "He's absolutely locked in." Remember when he was at his peak, and the Masters odds would come out? The most popular bet used to Tiger vs. the field. Tournaments are like Sunday are the reason why having that as an option ever made sense. On Sunday, there was Tiger, and then there was the everybody else. On the 18th hole, he tapped in for his par and screamed as he picked up his ball out of the hole. Then he screamed again. He hugged his new caddie, Joe LaCava, celebrating their first win together (oddly enough, LaCava did not call it "the best win of his career..."). It was the first official win after 18 months with new swing coach Sean Foley. It was the final culmination of what Tiger has been saying after each and every round, when Tom Rinaldi inevitably interviews him with a creepy smile on the whole time: He's getting better. He's very close to winning. It's a process. Be patient. Sometimes it was hard to believe him. Between the injuries, the distraction of the ridiculous Hank Haney book coming out (which I will read, by the way, but I still don't like it), the fact that his winless streak grew longer by the day and the title of "Best Player in the World" being seized by Rory McIlory (I know Donald is No. 1 right now, but let's be real), there was legitimate concern that Tiger simply would never win again. But it took just a few days, and one near-perfect final round, for those doubts to be erased. Right after the tournament ended, Vegas instilled Tiger as a 5 to 1 favorite to win the Masters, which starts in two weeks. Only McIlroy had better odds, at 4 to 1. By Monday, those had flip-flopped. Tiger is now the odds-on favorite to win a fifth Green Jacket at 4 to 1, while McIlroy is 5 to 1. And it's not just because he won. It's because of the way he won. During the final round, I kept getting text messages from friends that usually read something like, "TIGER!!!!" I'll be honest - I don't get "OLAZABAL!!!!" texts very often. There was just a different feel on Sunday, and everybody took notice. The red shirt meant something again. With Augusta just two weeks away - somewhere Jim Nantz is smiling into a mirror repeating "Hello friends" over and over, and Nick Faldo is warming up his pretentiousness by finding golfers all over the country who yell "get in the hole" and spitting on them - Tiger has every aspect of his game working. He's always been a fantastic iron player, especially with the longer irons, and he still is. So far this season, his long time Achilles' heel (besides the one that he actually keeps hurting) - his driving - has been better than anybody's. And then, finally, his short game came around this week. He finished the Arnold Palmer first in scrambling. Who the hell knows if he'll win, but it makes sense that he's suddenly become the favorite. It's all lined up perfectly. And I know I inexplicably enjoy watching Tiger Woods play golf more than most people, but what I'm saying is hard to argue against. And in saying all of these things, I know I come across as somebody salivating over the guy. But I'm not trying to vindicate him for what he's done in the past, or tell you that he's a good guy. Quite frankly, it's really not my concern at the moment. What is my concern is how much he brings to the sport of golf - just wait for the ratings at the Masters - and Tiger took a giant leap towards being back on Sunday. If he doesn't win the rest of the season, then scrap this column. But he'll be confident this week, and he should be. Whether it's McIlroy, Donald, or Phil Mickelson, no one is going to stand in his way if he plays the way he did this past week. Green jacket number five, anyone?
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