NOTHING, IT SEEMS, can stop Tiger Woods. Not bad greens, late-night baby feedings, a faltering swing, cross-town traffic ... not even the ghost of Byron Nelson. Certainly none of his fellow competitors are up to the task. Woods delivered another classic performance at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, surviving a back-nine dogfight and seizing the tournament with a walk-off birdie on the 72nd hole. The latest heroics kept Woods undefeated in 2008, and with his sixth straight worldwide victory dating to last fall he is more than halfway to Nelson's epic record of 11 in a row, set in 1945. Woods is winning with such ease he's making a mockery of how difficult tournament golf really is, or is supposed to be.
"I don't think people in general, and maybe even the average golf fan, can appreciate exactly what Tiger is doing," said Bart Bryant, the runner-up at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando and a 15-year veteran who has three career Tour victories. "I mean, they appreciate it. I just don't think they understand the magnitude of what he's accomplishing."
The truly frightening thing is that by his own incomparable standards Woods was pretty mediocre for much of last week. During an even-par 70 first round he struggled with his distance control, hitting only 10 greens in regulation. Among the lowlights were a fatted sand wedge short of the 5th green and a pitching wedge that he blew clear over the 15th green. "I just didn't hit my irons clean today," Woods said.
It was more of the same on Friday as his swing was off-plane and his nose out of joint. Bay Hill's greens had been ravaged by an infestation of nematodes, voracious little worms that have little respect for golf courses, and the bumpy, inconsistent putting surfaces were particularly vexing to a perfectionist like Woods. He has dedicated his career to eliminating chance, but at Bay Hill every putt was a crapshoot, and for two days it seemed to drain some of Woods's usual intensity. On the greens he wore an exasperated smile throughout a second-round 68, which left him languishing in 20th place, seven behind leader Vijay Singh, a longtime antagonist. Of course, Tiger never stops fighting, and following the round he said, "I'll do some work tonight and probably do a little work tomorrow morning, and I'll be all right."
With that Woods lit out of Bay Hill and weaved through a few miles of traffic back to his lair in the Isleworth community, where he could grind on his game in seclusion. (Construction of Woods's dream house is about to begin at his $44.5 million compound on the east coast of Florida, on Jupiter Island.) Among Woods's many gifts is a knack for self-diagnosis. Says his instructor, Hank Haney, "He knows his swing so well that he can almost always fix it on his own."
A startling example of this came last month at the Dubai Desert Classic. After Woods had chopped his way to a third-round 73, during which he visited groves of palm trees, patches of desert sand and, on the final hole, a water hazard, he cured himself by working on the range and then in front of a mirror in his hotel room. In the final round he came back with an airtight 65 to storm to one of the more memorable victories of his career.
Last Saturday at Bay Hill, Woods looked like a different player, which is to say, he looked like himself. He birdied three of the first four holes to announce his intentions, looking increasingly comfortable on greens that got faster as the week wore on. On the 15th hole he hit a quintessential Tiger shot, carving a four-iron around a stand of trees to within two feet, and he stuffed his approach on the next hole too. Woods's 66 got him back in the tournament, but it took a comedy of errors to propel him into a share of the lead. It long ago became an accepted fact around the Tour that other players start gagging as soon as Woods's name appears on the leader board; the only difference at Bay Hill was that it happened on Saturday instead of on Sunday. Singh seemed to have control of the tournament until Woods climbed into contention, at which point the big Fijian played a four-hole stretch in five over par, dumping three balls into the water along the way. This opened the door for Nick Watney to shoot into the lead with an eagle on the 12th hole, his second big bird of the round. Watney gave back those four shots with a quadruple bogey on the 16th hole. Watney ceded the lead to Bryant, who immediately splashed his approach on the 16th. Woods was suddenly atop the leader board and heading into the final round was tied with Bryant and three others. The bad news for them: Of the 45 previous times that Woods had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, he closed the deal 42 times.
Looking ahead to the final round, coleader (and Tiger's frequent practice-round playing partner) Bubba Watson said, "No matter what he does, it's going to be incredible, and it's going to be unbelievable."
When Woods birdied the 2nd hole on Sunday to nab the solo lead, the outcome seemed preordained, especially once he buried sizable putts to save par on the next two holes. Woods has been putting out of his mind for months, and it's not by accident. "His putting is a lot better this year because he has worked hard on it," says Haney. In recent years Woods has spent so many hours grooving his swing changes that his putting suffered ever so slightly. "He has always made the pressure putts, but he's much more consistent now," says Haney, noting that Woods had only one three-putt in his first 14 rounds this year. "That's pretty damned good, especially when you consider all the putts he's making."
Woods three-putted again on Bay Hill's baked-out 10th green, from inside seven feet. (For the week those would be his only two misses in 63 attempts from nine feet and in.) The three-putt dropped him into a tie with Bryant, a crusty 45-year-old who has been through Q school six times. Bryant gamely kept the pressure on with three back-nine birdies, and they were still tied as Woods, in the final group, played the 441-yard, par-4 18th, one of the most exacting finishing holes in golf.
After an ideal drive Woods was 177 yards out, to a pin tucked on a shallow finger of green guarded by water in front and bunkers beyond. Naturally he summoned what he would call "the best swing I made all week," a five-iron that rifled through a swirling wind. Woods was left with 24 feet, downhill, left to right, a near replica of the clutch putt he had made on the 72nd hole in Dubai.
As Woods was sizing up this potential game-winner, Arnold Palmer materialized behind the green, looking devilishly handsome in a blue blazer. The King knows a thing or two about Sunday charges, and he began telling anyone who would listen that the putt was as good as in. Woods's wife, Elin, didn't look so sure—she was nervously nibbling on a corner of her plastic I.D. badge. (Baby Sam was not on the property, though Dad would give her credit for some of his fine play, saying, "I have a great balance in my life right now. A little lack of sleep has probably made me a little bit better.") Next to Elin was Watson, who had just finished his round but stuck around, saying, "I'm here as a fan." Watson has so much respect for Tiger that he sometimes refers to him as Mr. Woods, but Bubba was pessimistic about the looming putt. "I don't think it's in," he said. "I just had that putt. It's impossible to read."
But another difference between Woods and just about everybody else is the course knowledge he has accrued, so much of it in victory. In 2001 at Bay Hill he made a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to trump Phil Mickelson. According to Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, the difference between that putt and the one Woods faced seven years later was only six inches. Said Woods, "I kept telling myself, I've done this before, and I can do it again."
Woods's stroke was so pure, his line and speed so perfect, that he started backpedaling in celebration when the ball was still four or five feet from the hole. When the putt dropped, he spiked his hat to the ground, a display of pent-up emotion he could not recall later. ("When Stevie handed me my hat I was, like, How the hell did he get my hat?") Elin jumped about three feet into the air and then gave Watson a hug. "Unbelievable," he said of the putt, not the hug. "Ridiculous. Insane." Poor Bubba was still shaking his head in disbelief as he walked to the parking lot.
How long can the streak go on? Next up is this week's CA Championship, on a Doral course where Woods has won three times. Typically, he is leaving nothing to chance. As he was departing from Bay Hill, he was asked if he would take a day off to enjoy his dramatic victory. Tiger had a one-word answer.
One difference between Woods and just about everybody else is the COURSE KNOWLEDGE he has accrued, so much of it in victory.
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HAT'S OFF Woods was so focused (below) that he forgot he had spiked his cap after sinking the decisive 24-foot birdie putt.
J. PAT CARTER/AP
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Photograph by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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TWO KINGS Palmer, who predicted that the 72nd-hole putt would drop, watched Woods win his event for the fifth time.