Golf fans had waited nearly 9 1/2 months for Tiger Woods to begin the final round of a golf tournament in contention. When that moment finally arrived on Sunday at Bay Hill, he delivered in characteristic fashion.
Woods sank a 16-foot birdie putt on the final hole of regulation to edge Sean O’Hair, win the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the sixth time and match the largest final-round comeback of his career.
When the ball fell into the cup just before dark, Woods unleashed an emphatic fist pump and hugged his caddie, Steve Williams. The gallery surrounding the 18th green let out a roar that was so loud that it could be heard several hundred yards away.
“It was like Steve was saying out there, this feels like we hadn’t left,” Woods said. “You just remember how to do it. Granted, it hadn’t been that long for me, but still, you just have that feel of what to do, and it’s a matter of getting it done.”
Woods finished the tournament at five under par and notched his first victory since he won the U.S. Open last June and underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee. And now he will have momentum when the Masters begins on April 9.
Woods began Sunday trailing O’Hair by five strokes, but as they played together on Sunday, O’Hair responded with his worst round of the tournament.
O’Hair shot a 73 and Woods posted a 67.
Players found it far easier to put up low numbers Sunday courtesy of a storm that came in overnight and intensified during the morning. The rain stopped around noon, but it delayed the start of the round by almost two hours. It also had softened the greens drastically and allowed golfers to shoot aggressively at the pin.
Woods took advantage of the friendlier conditions. His tee shot on the par-three second hole came to a rest just three feet from the green, and he converted for birdie. His approach on the par-four third hole stopped about six feet from the cup, and he logged birdie.
“Reel him in, Tiger!” one fan yelled. “Let’s go!” “Catch up, buddy!” another spectator said. “We have faith in you!”
In 2000, he had won at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am despite a five-shot deficit after 54 holes.
On Sunday, Woods looked calm all day long. He occasionally reached into his golf bag and pulled out a plastic bag filled with trail mix and noshed on handfuls while waiting to tee off.
O’Hair didn’t handle the pressure as well. His first three rounds had been set up by his accuracy off the tee, but on Sunday, he hit only six of 14 fairways.
“It’s not like it’s ‘The Tiger Show’ and I’m just out there to watch him,” O’Hair said. “And I think that’s the one thing the media thinks about the guys out here, and it’s not about that. We’re trying to win golf tournaments, and he just happens to be that good.”
Woods pulled even with O’Hair at five under by making a 25-foot putt for birdie on the 15th hole. O’Hair then bogeyed No. 16 to fall one shot behind, but Woods bogeyed the par-three 17th hole after he landed his tee shot in a greenside bunker.
Woods, O’Hair and third-place finisher Zach Johnson came to the 18th tee box with just minutes of sunlight remaining. Woods clubbed his tee shot into the fairway, 160 yards from the pin, and then used a seven iron to reach the green.
One year ago, he made a 25-foot putt for birdie to win the tournament by one stroke.
Sunday’s winning putt was easier, but no less important.
“This win definitely validates all the things I’ve been trying to do,” Woods said.
It was just like old times.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A closer look
Some numbers on Tiger Woods’ win Sunday:
5strokes Woods trailed Sean O’Hair by at the beginning of the fourth round.
5final-round birdies by Woods.
1final-round birdie by O’Hair.
6victories at Bay Hill for Woods (2009, 2008, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000)
2Masters wins for Woods after he won at Bay Hill (2002, 2001).