Generation next finally meet Tiger in his prime

Woods completes his return to the peak of world golf at Arnold Palmer Invitational


A few miles from the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Tiger Woods ran into a fire hydrant and out gushed sordid details of his private life. Two years later, in November 2011, he reached rock bottom in his professional life, dropping to number 58 in the world ranking.

Gilded to gilded, gold dust to gold dust, Woods completed his return to golf’s zenith, not far from where he plunged from grace, with a victory on Monday at the weather-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Completing the final 16 holes of his fourth round, Woods carded a two-under 70 to win by two strokes and overtake the world number one, Rory McIlroy, who skipped the event but will return to action this week in Houston.

‘Unbelievable performance’
“What can you say?” said Palmer (83), who collected 62 PGA Tour titles, 15 fewer than Woods. “Unbelievable performance for him. He’s been playing good all his life and he showed it again today.”

Woods finished at 13-under 275 for his first back-to-back wins since 2009.

His nearest challenger was Justin Rose (-11), who shares his swing coach, Sean Foley, with Woods. Rickie Fowler, who was paired with Woods in the final group, was within two strokes after 15 holes but made a triple-bogey 8 at 16 on his way to a 73 and a four-way tie for third at 8-under with Keegan Bradley (71), Mark Wilson (71) and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (72).

“I play well here,” Woods said, “and that’s as simple as it gets.”

With the victory, his third of the season and his second of the monthlong Florida swing, Woods supplanted the star of the West Coast swing, Brandt Snedeker, who had a win, two seconds and a third, as the prohibitive favourite at the Masters, which begins on April 11th.

Four of Woods’s 14 major titles have come at Augusta National, where he last was victorious in 2005.

Three times, in 2000, 2003 and 2008, Woods won events before the Masters, including Palmer’s tournament. But there can be no comparing him then with him now.

In 2000 and 2003 he was not married, much less divorced with joint custody of two small children. Later in 2008, knee injuries forced him off the tour for eight months. Those were the days when Woods’ world was neatly compartmentalised, his focus fully on challenges between the gallery ropes.

Then and now
His margin of victory in 2003 was 11 strokes, over Stewart Cink, Brad Faxon, Kenny Perry and Kirk Triplett. There is no comparing the competition then and now. The talent pool is deeper, the fields strengthened by a younger generation inspired by Woods with games patterned after Woods.

It was hardly a surprise that two of the Tour’s fresh faces, Fowler (24) and Bradley (26) were among those applying the heat on Woods. Fowler was eight years old in June 1997 when Woods initially reached number one, where he stayed for 623 nonconsecutive weeks.

Injuries and off-course issues punctured Woods’ aura of invincibility in recent years.

Fowler and Bradley joined the Tour after Woods’ last major victory, at the 2008 US Open, so they have never had their psyches bruised by battling Woods at his best.

Bubba Watson, the reigning Masters champion, whose 67 on Sunday stood up as the lowest final-round score, called Woods “the greatest golfer ever”. He said: “But you have to remember, the competition is better. Since he hurt himself, there are younger kids coming up. There are people coming over here and playing more. The whole world is growing, and they know how to train and how to practise because they’ve been watching him. So everyone knows how to get better at the game.”

Indefinite hold
The next generation can sense its coronation has been put on an indefinite hold.

“This is the Tiger that I grew up watching,” Bradley said.

The golfers Woods (37) is chasing now include the game’s best players.

He passed Jack Nicklaus on the career victory list last year with his 74th title, and his eight wins at Bay Hill match the record total of Sam Snead in Greensboro.

Snead won for the first time there in 1938 and for the last time in 1965. Woods is also within five titles of equaling Snead’s career victory total of 82.

“Sam did it for, what? Almost 30 years,” Woods said, “well into his early 50s he won. So it speaks to being consistent and just being there. To pass Jack last year, and I’m not that far from Sam, it hasn’t been easy, but also then again, over the course of time I’ve put myself there so many times that I’d hope I’d cash in a few times along the way.”

Before entering the interview tent to meet with the media, Woods scrolled through the texts on his smartphone. He could have stood there until nightfall and not thumbed replies to all the messages left by well-wishers.

It made him feel good, he said, which raised the question: When was the last time his game and his life has felt so in sync heading into the year’s first major? Woods said, “It’s been a few years.”
New York Times Service

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