Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that it was Tiger Woods’s sixth win at Bay Hill as a professional. It was his seventh. This version has been updated.
Finally, after 923 days, there it was, that red-shirted fist pump in the gloaming of a Sunday evening. And you know what that means: Tiger Woods is back.
Well, maybe, maybe not. What is back: the instant and idiotic installation of Woods as the favorite to win the Masters, which is less than a fortnight, er, two weeks away. (Wimbledon owns “fortnight.” All rights reserved. Very reserved.)
Woods looked like his old self Sunday, minus a little hair perhaps. A little older, maybe. A little wiser, one assumes. It was a Woodsian win: He led entering the final round and held off all challengers, including Graeme McDowell, over the final 18 holes to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by five strokes. It was an impressive performance. It bodes well for the game, and for Woods.
Afterward, Woods couldn’t stop smiling. “Pure joy,” he called it. Those are words we haven’t heard from Woods for years, maybe ever, even before the sex scandal and divorce and injuries and coaching changes and swing changes. Woods was always a taciturn young man, at least publicly; the collapse of his private life only magnified that.
But even a grinning Woods wasn’t measuring himself for a green jacket. He, more than most, has a better understanding now of just how funny a game golf can be. His mental game seems to be back; it certainly was not in evidence in his first tournament of the year, in Abu Dhabi, when he led entering the final round and dropped to third.
Physically, the once-bionic body is showing signs of wear and tear. Just two weeks ago he withdrew from the Cadillac Championship during the final round because of soreness in his left Achilles’ tendon. Helicopters followed his car out of the parking lot, naturally, in case he hit a pole or something.
Still, the signs were there. The week before the Cadillac, he scrambled to make the cut at the Honda Classic, then wound up tied for second when he shot the best final round of his life, a 62, to give eventual winner Rory McIlroy a scare.
“To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy I remember,” Ernie Els said then. “He never missed a shot or made a bad swing.”
(Not coincidentally, the presence of Woods helped give the tournament a huge attendance bump.)
Els is hardly alone in his assessment now that Woods has won for the seventh time at Bay Hill. That always signals a good Masters performance; twice he’s won a green jacket (which I assume he wears to dinner on St. Patrick’s Day) after winning Palmer’s tournament. He’s comfortable in Orlando, and he’s comfortable at Augusta — and he is more likely to win when he’s comfortable.
Does any of this mean Woods is a favorite for the Masters? Should anyone be a favorite for the Masters? I’ve always thought predicting the outcome of golf tournaments is about as easy — as useful — as herding cats, and that is particularly true with Woods in the mix. Yes, he ended his drought, he pumped his fist, he hoisted a trophy — after more than two years.
PGA Tour officials, Augusta officials, ESPN and CBS officials — in short, officials everywhere — were probably pumping their fists as well. A viable, competitive Woods is great for them. It’s also great for Hank Haney, whose “tell-all” book goes on sale Tuesday. (Get this: Haney reveals that Woods is self-centered and rarely satisfied. Shut up!)
But it’s possible — just possible — that all this means is that Woods is once again a contender, not that he’s yet the stony-faced, hard-as-nails spirit-killer he was before.
Then again, it doesn’t matter what we think. His competitors are already buying into the hype. “He’s going to be a force at Augusta,” Ian Poulter said. Woods’s playing partner on Sunday, McDowell, reverted to the playing-partner-speak of old: “Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all-time doing what he does best: winning golf tournaments.”
Get out the tape measure and start etching the trophy. Woods may indeed be back — not necessarily at the top of every leader board, but inside his competitors’ heads. And that gives him the equivalent of a five-stroke lead before the first tee shot is struck.
For Tracee Hamilton’s latest columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.