ORLANDO — It is the frustration that is, in a way, the most refreshing aspect of Tiger Woods’s Sunday. Don’t tell him that, because his fury was genuine, first because a putt for the share of the lead at 15 didn’t fall, then because his tee shot at 16 went hopelessly awry, finally because he fell from contention with back-to-back bogeys on the 70th and 71st holes of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
But look at all the phrases that casually, naturally, appear in the above paragraph — “share of the lead” and “Sunday” and “Tiger Woods” and “contention.” Rory McIlroy won the tournament with a sparkling 64 that included eight birdies, the last a 25-foot putt at 18 that followed with a full-on fist pump that punctuated his first PGA Tour victory in a year and a half.
McIlroy is among golf’s most prominent stars, a needle-mover in a sport that yearns for them. And yet Woods’s performance over the past two weeks — in which, if you listen to certain corners, he essentially unlocked the coffin and climbed from the grave — instantly overrides whatever any other character in this game can generate.
Consider how golf has changed over the past 10 days and not even because McIlroy dramatically got to 18 under to win. On March 11, down Interstate 4 outside Tampa, Woods had a putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Paul Casey. He missed. Still. On Sunday at Bay Hill Club, he had that 20-foot putt at 15 that would have pulled him into a tie with McIlroy and Henrik Stenson. Halfway to the hole, could it be?
“I thought I poured it,” Woods said. “I really did.”
So, then, the frustration. Woods, after he fanned his final tee shot of the week into the rough right of the 18th fairway, left the tee box and kicked at a microphone in the ground. What we know now is this is more than about the “process” and how he’s “progressing,” two buzzwords on which Woods has leaned during his recovery from back surgery. At some point, it had to be about results. It seemed like that turned Sunday.
“Probably a little bit agitated right now,” Woods said maybe an hour after he jacked that driver on 16 out of bounds, ending his chances.
This is what you want from Woods, though — agitation not because he can’t swing a club or get out of bed but because when the tournament was in the balance, he couldn’t execute properly. This agitation came after a tournament in which he finished tied for fifth, a tournament in which he shot back-to-back 69s on the weekend to extend his streak of rounds of par or better to 10, a tournament in which he — and this is important — mattered. It has been five years since Woods could realistically be expected to contend in any event, such was the state of his wrecked back, his comebacks in fits and starts. Now consider the distance he has traveled.
“If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said. “Everything was an unknown.”
Now we know: We’re at the point in his comeback where Woods expects his best from himself, and his best is among the best golf has ever seen. And so consider what golf now has, with the Masters on the horizon: a victory from Phil Mickelson two weeks ago in Mexico, his first in nearly five years, a 47-year-old threat at his favorite event. A victory from McIlroy, as talented a player as golf has at the moment, with the Masters the only major missing from his résumé.
“Look, I’ve always believed in myself, and I know that me being 100 percent healthy is not just good enough to win on the PGA Tour but win a lot,” McIlroy said. “. . . I never lost belief. I know that I’ve got a gift for this game, and I know that if I put the time in I can make a lot of it.”
Sounds like someone else. Woods, four times a winner at Augusta National, is the betting favorite in Vegas again. Sure, that’s for suckers. But the feeling that he could win again — that he will win again — is both unexpected and undeniable.
About Augusta: Injuries have prevented him from appearing there in three of the past four years. The Masters is the one tournament that can deliver juice even if Woods doesn’t show up. But he is 42, not 82. He shouldn’t yet be a ceremonial participant who raises a glass at the annual champion’s dinner and jets out the next morning. He should be in the field. He should be in contention.
“I miss playing there,” Woods said. “I’ve been there for the dinner, and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m, I would have to say, young enough to play the event . . . . And I just have not been able to do it physically, which is difficult.”
He now has answered the questions — many of them his own — about how he would hold up physically. On the par-4 fifth Sunday, he savagely went after a driver, pounding it up to within a chip of the green. At the sixth, he used a 6-iron to cover the 215 yards he had to a water-protected flag on the par 5. When he nestled it to 15 feet, he pumped his fist. Old times.
When Woods birdied 13, a chant of “Ti-ger! Ti-ger!” broke out. McIlroy had to move away from his putt at 11, where the crowd tried to come back with “Ro-ry! Ro-ry!”
“It wasn’t quite as loud,” McIlroy joked.
But the course, it had a buzz about it. This leader board would be worthy of Augusta, with Stenson holding the lead after three rounds, McIlroy and Justin Rose in the mix, quirky Bryson DeChambeau pushing with an eagle at 16 that pulled him within a shot of McIlroy.
“It looked like it was going to be a bit of a shootout out there,” McIlroy said.
That it involved Woods mattered. That McIlroy won did, too. The 28-year-old’s last victory, the 2016 Tour Championship, came on the day Arnold Palmer died. This victory came at Arnie’s event, where Palmer’s image and signature are plastered everywhere.
“If everyone on tour could handle themselves the way Arnie did,” McIlroy said, “the game of golf would be in a better place.”
The game of golf is in a better place than when March started. Mickelson won. McIlroy won. And more important than any of that, Tiger Woods is playing the role of Tiger Woods on Sunday, wearing red and, when things don’t go well, seeing red as well. These two weeks have changed the way the Masters might feel. It can’t get here fast enough.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.