The decisive stroke of the Bay Hill Invitational was played at the
18th green on Sunday beneath a battleship-gray sky. Tournament
host Arnold Palmer, waiting greenside near the scorer's tent,
watched the ball come off the face of Tiger Woods's putter and
immediately whispered to a friend, "Made it." Fifteen curvy feet
and several dramatic seconds later, the ball disappeared into the
center of the cup. A charged-up Woods, who had just willed in
another tournament-winning putt, but his first in a Tour event in
six months, put a little something extra into his signature fist
pump. Grinning, Palmer added, "Told ya." Phil Mickelson, who had
been tied for the lead until that moment, stood nearby smiling in
resignation, his slow clapping carrying the message: I had a
funny feeling you were going to make it.
Normally--if anything can be called normal in this year of
record scores, juiced-up balls and Joltin' Joe Durant--Woods
over a putt to win is as sure a thing as Michael Jordan with a
last-second jumper or Mark McGwire with a belt-high fastball.
This is not a normal year, however, as you may have noticed when
the Tour season began in...Australia? A funny thing happened
five minutes after Woods was proclaimed the greatest player ever
following his nine-victory season in 2000. He got off to a slow
start in 2001. Maybe it was the bumpy poa annua greens on the
West Coast. Maybe he treated January and February as his
off-season after choosing to play a heavy late-season schedule
that ran into December. Maybe he's so locked in on Augusta and a
historic opportunity to hold all four major titles at once,
which is some sort of Slam, Grand or not, that every Tour stop
is the equivalent of darting into a 7-Eleven.
Whatever the reason, Woods arrived in Orlando with Bob
Uecker-like statistics: 0-for-January, 0-for-February,
0-for-March. A slump? Hardly. He had finished second, fourth,
tied for fifth, tied for eighth, and 13th twice, a banner year
for your average Tour pro. A victory drought? Yes, albeit a
short one. (And no, Tiger, we haven't forgotten the two-day
Grand Slam of Golf or your World Cup tag-team match with David
Duval. When the NFL starts counting preseason games in the
regular-season standings, we'll count those two wins of yours.)
Woods's most unsightly nonwinning performance came two weeks ago
in Dubai, where, tied with hard-nosed Dane Thomas Bjorn on the
final hole, he blew a drive into the trees, pitched out and then,
in most un-Tiger-like fashion, dunked a nine-iron--a
nine-iron!--into the water to lose. While Woods's win in Orlando,
the 25th of his young career, means that his munchkin drought is
over, he had as much cause for concern as he did for celebration.
"I played like dog s---," Woods said on Thursday as he brushed
past a tournament official following an opening 71 that included
a triple-bogey 7 on his next-to-last hole.
Jump ahead to Sunday. Woods led by three shots with 12 holes to
go after Sergio Garcia tripled the par-5 6th with ugly play that
featured one shot into the lake and another that traveled only a
couple of feet. Woods's lead was lost when Mickelson birdied
four of six holes on the back nine while Woods struggled to find
the fairways, once again showing canine tendencies. Except on
this day, Tiger clawed out a 69, one of only six sub-70 scores,
thanks to pin positions as brutal as a bear market. Woods
birdied three of the last five holes--with a 40-foot bomb at 14,
a two-putt birdie at 16 and the closer at 18--and brought home
the scary truth about his game: At his best, like last year, he
is unbeatable. At his worst, like on Sunday at Bay Hill, he can
still win because he has the best short game on Tour. Pessimists
(the athletes' synonym for writers) may view Woods's latest
victory as they would a one-day rally on the NASDAQ.
Woods won at Bay Hill because he was magically draining putts
again, had his swing dialed in for two rounds--on Friday and
Saturday he shot 67-66--and most important, because he was lucky
as hell. "I'm scoring better than I did last year," Woods said
early in the week, noting that he was 75 under par in his first
six events this season. "The only problem is, I haven't got the
right breaks at the right time, and you need that to win."
On Sunday, Woods should have asked for a 15,000 Dow Jones, or a
sleeve of supermodels, because, 24 hours removed from St.
Patrick's Day, he was like that leprechaun who jumps off the
cereal box. Three times, including at the climactic 18th, Woods
hit tee shots that flirted with disaster. At the 9th, a long
par-4, he misfired way right. "I knew if it didn't hit a tree, it
would be out," Woods said. It stayed inbounds, barely, and he
scrambled for a workmanlike par. At the 16th, a par-5 that
practically comes with frosting and a Hostess wrapper, Woods
yanked his drive left of the fairway bunker and within five feet
of the out-of-bounds stakes. Nevertheless, he had a shot at the
green. He took full advantage of that break by pulling off one of
those inexplicable feats that seem to come naturally to him,
muscling a 195-yard seven-iron from a so-so lie to the green's
top tier. He missed the eagle putt, but the birdie gave him a
share of the lead with Mickelson, whose closing 66 was the day's
low score and whose 82-yard pitch to within a foot at the 18th to
salvage a crucial par had a lock on shot of the day until Woods
came to the final hole.
Maybe Woods's play at the 18th only proved that it pays to be the
world's most famous athlete, because the bigger his gallery, the
bigger his safety net. Woods badly hooked another drive--"It was
ducking," he said. "It wasn't one of my high hooks. This thing
was a Nolan Ryan curveball"--and the ball hit once, then looked as
if it was going to bounce on the concrete cart path adjacent to a
temporary fence that served as the out-of-bounds marker. "If it
had hit the cart path," Woods said, "it would have been gone."
But before the ball could taste cement, it hit a spectator in the
neck and dropped to the ground. The victim's surprised companion
picked up the ball, then acted as if she had grabbed a rabid
porcupine and dropped it.
After a free drop from the cart path, Woods had a good lie, 191
yards into a northerly breeze and an ideal angle into the
treacherous L-shaped green fronted by a rock-lined pond. NBC
commentator Johnny Miller said the situation called for a "hero
shot," and Woods delivered, sticking a five-iron pin high and 15
feet from the hole.
So he won, but on three occasions Woods had come within inches of
a new cycle of hellacious stories about a deepening slump. A
remarkable iron shot and a dramatic putt prevented a potential
embarrassment. Mickelson's finishing kick was superb, but if
Woods had gone out-of- bounds at 18 or dropped that nasty second
shot into the lake, well, the carving knives were sharpened and
ready. "That guy's got a lot of guts, man," said Chris Perry, who
played in the final threesome with Woods and Garcia. "I think
he's going to make every putt. The way he's able to focus, I
think he's going to make every chip shot, too. There's no doubt
he's the best. The guy knows how to win."
The numbers agree with Perry. Woods has won 25 of the 96 Tour
events he has entered since turning pro. That's better than one
in four, the kind of batting average that Uecker could only
dream about. For comparison's sake, Palmer won 27 of 94
tournaments from 1960 through '63. Jack Nicklaus won 26 of 87
from 1971 through '75. The difference is that those were their
prime years. Woods's numbers are from the start of his pro
All right, the drought is over, but the question remains: Is
Woods really back in form or was Bay Hill a series of lucky
breaks that, had they gone the other way, would have spelled
disaster? Dean Miner, a fan from St. Petersburg who caught
Woods's action during the third round, thinks he knows. When he
found a Las Vegas bookmaker who was offering 5-to-2 odds on Woods
in Augusta instead of the going rate of 2 to 1, Miner placed a
$1,000 wager. "Tiger's winning the Masters is the difference
between linoleum and hardwood floors in my new house," Miner
says, "and believe me, I really like hardwood."
The Masters is two weeks away. Mr. Woods, the floor is yours--at
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Big shot After almost going O.B. on his drive at 18, Woods put this five-iron 15 feet from the hole and made the birdie putt to win.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Low and highs Woods had that sinking feeling after barely missing at the 17th, but roared to victory on the very next hole.
Earlier Woods said, "The only problem is I haven't got the right
breaks at the right time, and you need that to win."