ORLANDO, March 30 – If there was any doubt Tiger Woods would be the Masters favorite, he dispelled it Sunday with another dramatic victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
In just his third start back from left knee surgery, Woods ignored camera flashes from the party on the other side of the pond at the par-4 18th, read his birdie putt perfectly in the semi-darkness and ran in a 15-footer for his sixth victory at Bay Hill.
"This feels like we hadn’t left," Woods said after shooting a three-under par 67 to finish at five-under 275, one stroke ahead of fellow American Sean O’Hair, who fired a 73.
It was the third time Woods had holed a lengthy putt at the 18th green to win at Bay Hill. For any other player, that alone would be an astonishing feat but not for Woods, who collected 1.08 million dollars.
Woods won his 66th career title in his final tuneup for the Masters and made himself a huge favorite for a 15th major title at Augusta National Golf Club in two weeks.
"At my three tournaments this year, I’ve gotten better at each one and that was the whole idea, to keep progressing to Augusta," Woods said.
"It feels good to be back, to feel the heat on the back nine on Sunday like that. And obviously the big bonus is to win. It’s always nice to win a tournament pre-Augusta and I was able to do that again this year."
Woods matched his biggest final-round comeback on the PGA Tour, overturning a five-stroke deficit to catch the faltering O’Hair, whose glacial pace of play would have required a Monday finish had there been a playoff.
Woods took 15 holes to draw level and he took the sole lead when O’Hair butchered the par-4 16th, his second shot form the middle of the fairway finding the hazard guarding the green, leading to a bogey.
But Woods gave back the lead immediately with a bogey at the par-three 17th, where his four-iron buried in the front bunker.
That set up a dramatic climax and Woods, as usual, rose to the occasion. After O’Hair missed a long birdie putt, Woods staked out his winning putt.
He figured the falling temperature would make the putt a little slower than usual, so he made the necessary mental adjustments and rolled the putt home.
"I hit a pure putt," Woods said. "I hit it really solid and it held its line all the way there."
Woods reflected on how far he has come in a short time after missing eight months while recovering from major left knee surgery, playing his first strok-eplay event only two weeks ago at Doral.
"Certainly this win validates all the things I’ve been trying to do," he said. "At Doral, I didn’t get anything out of my rounds.
"This week I got a lot out of my rounds – good saves, big putts, and that’s what you have to do in order to score. I would like to hit the ball like I did at Doral and putt like I did this week."
O’Hair wasn’t up to the challenge, but he disputed any insinuation he was intimidated by his opponent.
"I’m trying to compete against Tiger. It’s not like it’s the Tiger show and I’m just out there to watch him," O’Hair said. "I’m disappointed I couldn’t bring the ball-striking into today.
"It proves I don’t quite have it yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going in the right direction."