March 25, 2012

Tiger wins record seventh Arnold Palmer

It was a long, hard process, but Tiger Woods is a winner again on the PGA Tour.

He accomplished it in convincing fashion, scoring a five-stroke victory over Graeme McDowell on Sunday to capture his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.

It marked the first official win for the 36-year-old Woods since Sept. 13, 2009, when he won the BMW Championship. Last December, Tiger claimed the World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“It feels good,” said a smiling Woods, who earned $1,080,000. “It feels really good. It’s been a lot of work.”

Woods closed with a 2-under-par 70 and finished at 13-under 275.

McDowell shot 74 Sunday and placed second at 280. The five-stroke winning margin was the largest on the PGA Tour since the 2011 U.S. Open, when Rory McIlroy won by eight shots at Congressional Country Club.

Tiger has now won 72 PGA Tour titles, third-best on the all-time list. Sam Snead ranks first with 82 and Jack Nicklaus is second with 73.

“He was a man on a mission today,” said caddie Joe LaCava, who secured his first win on the bag with Woods. “He was pretty jacked up. He was out there to prove himself.”

With good reason. Woods had to overcome personal issues and injuries, then rebuilt his golf swing with coach Sean Foley. He went 923 days and 26 events between victories on the PGA Tour — his longest drought as a professional. His last official win on any tour came on Nov. 15, 2009, at the Australian Masters.

Woods, who moved up to sixth in the official world rankings, started the final round with a one-stroke advantage over McDowell. Of the 53 times Tiger has led or co-led when tied or leading after 54 holes, he has turned 49 into wins.

The victory was the 38th in 40 tries for Woods when leading outright after 54 holes. It also marked the 16th time in his career he has won by five or more strokes.

Played in partly cloudy and sometimes breezy conditions with temperatures in the low 80s on Sunday, the final round was essentially match play between Woods and McDowell, and the gallery was large and vocal. Woods got the early jump when McDowell double-bogeyed the par-4 first hole and never surrendered the lead.

Woods two-putted the first hole from 21 feet for a par and increased his cushion to three strokes. He dropped a shot at the 213-yard, par-3 second, where he three-putted from 40 feet and saw his lead trimmed to two.

But Woods recovered quickly. At the 434-yard, par-4 third, Tiger flagged a 9-iron three feet below the hole and calmly converted after McDowell poured in a 45-foot birdie putt before him.

At the 561-yard, par-5 fourth, Woods hit a good drive, then knocked a fairway wood from 267 yards just left of the green. Faced with a tough, uphill chip from a tight lie, Tiger ran his pitch 14 feet beyond the cup but buried the birdie putt to regain a three-shot lead.

Woods just missed an 18-foot birdie attempt at the 390-yard, par-4 fifth, then birdied the 555-yard, par-5 sixth. After a big drive, he hit a beautiful long iron from 267 yards over water to within 16 feet and two-putted. McDowell holed a 51-foot putt for eagle to keep the pressure on and pulled within two.

Tiger two-putted the par-3 seventh for a par from 28 feet, then reeled off another birdie at the 460-yard, par-4 eighth. After finding the fairway with an iron off the tee, he hit a brilliant approach shot over water from 182 yards that settled three feet below the back-left pin.

Woods polished off the putt to regain a three-stroke lead.

Tiger narrowly missed a 22-foot birdie try at the par-4 ninth, but increased his advantage to four strokes when McDowell bogeyed.

Woods shot a 3-under 33 on the front nine.

Woods two-putted the par-4 10th hole from 66 feet and dodged a bullet when McDowell missed a short birdie attempt. At the 483-yard, par-4 11th, Tiger hit his second shot from 170 yards long and right of the green. He chipped to seven feet, then watched McDowell drain another long birdie putt. Hoping to avoid a two-shot swing, a confident Woods stroked in his par putt but saw his lead cut to two.

Woods pulled his drive way left at the par-5 12th, then cut a wonderful fairway wood back into the fairway, just short of the green. From there, he hit a poor chip 24 feet from the cup but two-putted for a par and gained a shot when McDowell three-putted for a bogey.

Tiger two-putted the par-4 13th for a par and dodged another bullet when McDowell missed a six-foot birdie try. Both players bogeyed the tough, par-3 14th, with Woods missing from about six feet.

For Woods, the turning point of the round likely came at the 467-yard, par-4 15th. After driving into the right fairway bunker, his second shot came up well short of the green. From there he chipped 12 feet short of the hole. McDowell easily made par, but Tiger also poured in his par putt to retain his four-stroke cushion.

Woods failed to birdie the par-5 16th hole for the first time all week, but so did McDowell. Tiger three-putted from the back fringe, nearly 60 feet away, while McDowell missed a short, downhill right-to-left putt.

Woods hit a nice 5-iron onto the green at the dangerous, 213-yard, par-3 17th, and two-putted from 53 feet. When McDowell bogeyed, he took a commanding five-stroke lead to the final hole.

Tiger split the 18th hole with his drive, then hit his approach shot 33 feet from the flag, finally allowing himself to smile. He got a high-five from LaCava, a handshake from McDowell, then tipped his cap to the cheering crowd as he approached the green with most fans standing.

After two-putting for a par, Woods received a big hug from LaCava and the spectators chanted, “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”

Woods, who leads the PGA Tour in total driving, hit 83 percent of the greens in regulation on Sunday and tied for first in that category.

The final-round 70 marked the first time Tiger had shot four-consecutive sub-par rounds in a tournament since the 2010 Masters.

Speaking of Augusta National, Woods’ next event is the Masters, April 5-8. He can’t wait.

“I’m excited, there’s no doubt,” he said. “Looking forward to the momentum I built.”