ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods had just blasted a 317-yard drive over the corner of the lake that guards the left side of the par-5 sixth hole at Bay Hill.
But as good as the drive was, the 6-iron from 226 yards was even better, leaving Woods with an eagle attempt of only 13 feet in Sunday’s final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It could have been viewed as the moment of truth for Woods. Was he truly back from a nearly one-year absence because of back-fusion surgery and off-course issues that included a reckless-driving plea and treatment for pain-pill addiction?
© GOLFFILE/DALTON HAMM
Tiger Woods, who surged up the leaderboard Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, lost any hope for a ninth title at Bay Hill with an errant drive at 16.
The anticipation by the massive gallery was palpable as Woods walked up to green to mark his ball. The crowd settled into a deathly silence as Woods stood over the eagle chance. With the only noise coming from a nearby generator, Woods struck the putt and then started to form a fist pump, thinking that he had holed it, but stopped as the ball rolled 4 feet past the cup.
“I did. I did,” Woods said. “It wiggled just a touch to the right at the end.”
It was the sort of putt that Woods, winner of 79 PGA Tour events in his two-decade heyday, would have willed into the hole. The miss spoke volumes about where he stands in his comeback.
He’s clearly close, but he’s not quite where he needs to be.
The API was Woods’ last competitive tuneup before the Masters on April 5-8. Although he displayed glimpses of the old Woods, he also showed that the new version still needs some work.
On the 390-yard, par-4 fifth hole, Woods decided to hit driver in hopes of getting close to the green. Instead, he short-sided himself in the right rough. After missing the green from 42 yards, his putt from off the front collar raced across the putting surface and hit the flagstick, stopping within tap-in distance for a fortuitous par.
After a three-putt bogey at the par-4 ninth, Woods found flashes of his old form with birdies on three of the first four holes on the back nine to surge within one stroke of the lead. However, he pulled his tee shot left and out of bounds at the reachable par-5 16th, leading to a bogey and effectively ending any hopes of a ninth Bay Hill title. Woods shot 3-under 69 for a 10-under 278 total and share of fifth place, eight strokes behind runaway winner Rory McIlroy (scores).
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” said Woods, who tied for second one week earlier at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort.
In five tournaments this season, Woods, 42, has shown remarkable improvement. He started his year in late January at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the San Diego muni where he has racked up eight victories, including the 2008 U.S. Open. Many observers tabbed it as the ideal place for Woods to make his competitive return, but some thought it was a mistake (“Woods’ first bad move of ’18: Torrey debut,” Jan. 5). He tied for 23rd but missed the cut three weeks later at his hometown event, the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles. It ultimately proved to be a lost week. The two California events produced some promise, but in six rounds Woods never broke 70 and posted only two under-par scores.
However, upon returning to his adopted home state of Florida, he made a considerable upgrade in his game, contending in all three events on the Florida Swing. He finished 12th at the Honda Classic before the Valspar co-runner-up and his run at Bay Hill.
So now Woods has two weeks to prepare for his 21st trek up Magnolia Lane.
Las Vegas started the year with Woods as a 20-1 pick to end a 4½-year winless streak and slip into his fifth green jacket. After his first two weeks in Florida, Woods became the Masters favorite at 8-1.
Woods has shown that his game is competitive enough for an Augusta National course where he hasn’t won since 2005, before the layout was “Tiger-proofed” for a second time. But Woods has missed the past two Masters events and hasn’t even putted competitively on bentgrass greens in two years.
“I’ve got to see if my [course yardage] book is any good,” Woods playfully mused. “I have a book from three years ago, but I don't know if they have resurfaced. I think they may have resurfaced three of the greens since the last time I played, but I want to go up there and make sure and then take a look at all my reads on my putts and see if they match my book. If they're not, then obviously I’ve got to erase and draw some more lines.”
For now, at least the lines that Woods has been drawing have been his most accurate in years.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli