Tiger Woods is all the way back.
OK, perhaps he’s one 38-foot putt short of “all the way back,” but still.
Mostly a vapor on the PGA Tour over the past three years, the 42-year-old superstar nearly notched his 80th victory at the Valspar Championship in Tampa last weekend, coming up just short of a playoff showdown with Paul Casey. A stellar Friday and Saturday (68-67) put him in perfect position to win, one shot behind rookie 54-hole leader Corey Conners, but birdies were hard to come by on Sunday — just too many long first putts after too many ho-hum iron approaches. Still, a second-place tie (in front of huge in-person crowds and what was undoubtedly the largest TV audience this event has ever had) shows that the 14-time major winner is definitely in the Masters conversation.
First things first, though, and that means the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, a tournament Tiger has won eight times. He was on the sidelines for last year’s edition, the first after the King’s passing in October 2016, and the golf world had pretty much written him off for the foreseeable future if not forever when word came that he’d undergone lower lumbar spinal fusion surgery (piled on top of several other back and knee surgeries). No Tour golfer had come back from that kind of invasive procedure. Surely Tiger, despite his vaunted workout regimen and proven mental focus, couldn’t overcome it.
But here we are, on Bay Hill’s doorstep, and Mr. Woods will win it.
- The course’s Champion and Challenger nines set up perfectly for Tiger. Florida-flat with middling rough, wide fairways and manageable greens, there’s plenty of room for his sometimes wild driver, lots of acute attack angles over the course’s many lakes, and a firm-and-fast set up that will allow him to pull the 3-metal or 2-iron and still be in position to take dead birdie aim.
- He’s a local, or used to be. Before relocating down the Florida coast to his epic mansion near Jupiter, Tiger was a Orlando resident who lived just up the road from Bay Hill and knows its every blade. He’s comfortable here.
- His short game is sharp. A sweet pitch-in from deep gunch during Saturday’s round at Copperhead — and several other gorgeous chips and bunker shots sprinkled throughout the week, and through previous rounds at the Honda Classic and during the West Coast swing — show that Tiger’s scary yips are long gone. Bay Hill’s gentle greenside slopes and perfectly coiffed traps will be no match for him.
- He can taste it after last week’s near miss. Give a hungry Tiger a sniff of the trophy, especially one emblazoned with his hero Arnie’s name, and a big gulp of glory is sure to follow.
- Augusta beckons. The Masters is just three weeks down the road. Tiger has four green jackets, his last coming way back in 2005. A win at Bay Hill complete his improbable comeback and put him in a perfect position to head down Magnolia Lane with a full head of world-beater steam while putting all those young bucks on notice — are you paying attention, Jordan, Justin, Rory and Dustin? It’s a dream scenario, especially when you throw in fellow old-dude warrior Phil Mickelson, who just notched his first tour win in nearly five years. What self-respecting golf fan doesn’t crave just this kind of Masters set-up?
Bottom line: Nobody moves the golf needle like Tiger Woods, and he’s ready to peg that sucker into the red — dramatic, Sunday shirt, hardware-hoisting red. Arnie would approve.