Tiger Woods said he’ll head to next month’s Masters Tournament with momentum after his first victory on golf’s U.S. PGA Tour following 2 1/2 years of scandal, injuries and commercial setbacks.
Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational for a record seventh time yesterday, his first title on the tour since the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009 -- a gap of 132 weeks. Two of Woods’s four Masters titles at Augusta National Golf Club followed wins at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando.
“I’ve won here on a few occasions going into Augusta which has always been a good feeling,” Woods, 36, said at a news conference after his five-stroke victory over Graeme McDowell. “I still have got some work to do, but I’m excited.”
Tournament host Arnold Palmer didn’t attend yesterday’s trophy presentation at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando after being taken to a nearby hospital because of elevated blood pressure, his business manager Alastair Johnston, the vice-chairman of International Management Group, told reporters. Palmer, 82, was kept in overnight, though his blood pressure had begun to fall shortly after the tournament ended, Johnston said.
Woods’s victory ended the longest drought of his career and was his 72nd on the PGA Tour, one fewer than Jack Nicklaus and 10 behind all-time leader Sam Snead. Woods previously won four straight titles at Bay Hill from 2000-03 and also had back-to-back wins in 2008 and 2009. He went on to win Masters titles in 2001 and 2002.
“I’ve gone into Augusta with wins and without wins,” Woods said. “I understand how to play Augusta National and it’s just a matter of executing the game plan.”
Woods, who moved to sixth from 18th in the Official World Golf Ranking with the victory, is now listed as the Masters favorite at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino’s sportsbook, with 4-1 odds. Last week, he was the 7-1 second-choice behind Rory McIlroy for the first of golf’s four annual major championships, which starts April 5.
Woods, who began yesterday’s final round with a one-stroke lead over McDowell, shot a 2-under-par 70 to finish the tournament at 13-under-par. McDowell finished at 8-under after a final-round 74 and Ian Poulter was third at 6-under.
“This was coming,” Woods said. “I just had to stay the course. We all knew the things that we were working on were coming together, they were starting to solidify, because the golf ball wasn’t moving. It’s just going so straight and the ball flight is just so tight.”
It was Woods’s fifth event this year on the PGA Tour and followed a second-place finish at the Honda Classic on March 4.
Return from Injury
The Arnold Palmer Invitational marked Woods’s return to the circuit after a mild Achilles tendon strain forced him to withdraw during the final round of the Cadillac Championship March 11. He had four straight sub-par rounds, shooting 69, 65 and 71 before making four birdies and two bogeys yesterday.
After McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, opened the final round with a double-bogey, Woods bogeyed the par-3 second hole and then birdied four of his next six holes.
While McDowell made a 45-foot birdie putt at the third hole and a 51-foot eagle putt at the sixth, Woods stretched his advantage to four shots when Northern Ireland’s McDowell missed a short par putt at the ninth hole. When McDowell added three bogeys over the final seven holes, Woods took a five-shot lead to the 18th tee. Woods broke into a wide smile after his second shot landed in the center of the green.
“Week in week out it’s getting a little bit better,” said Woods, who waved his hat to acknowledge the fans chanting his name after he made his final putt. “When push came to shove, when the wind was howling and I had to hit a lot of good shots, I did.”
Woods, who received $1.08 million for the victory, last won the Masters in 2005 and collected the last of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open. He said he still needs to iron out some kinks in his game if he’s going to move within three of Nicklaus’s record haul of majors.
“It’ll be good to get a week off and work on a few things,” said Woods, who with a victory can tie Nicklaus’s record of five Masters wins. “I was able to hit some really good shots the last two days and that’s a really good sign going into Augusta.”
Since the start of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 1966, only Woods and Fred Couples in 1992 have won the Masters and the Bay Hill tournament in the same year.
Woods’s victory in the 2009 BMW Championship came two months before a one-vehicle crash outside his former Orlando home that sparked a sex scandal that led to his divorce and the end of his record 281-week stay atop the world rankings.
Coach, Caddie Changes
He also replaced swing coach Hank Haney with Sean Foley, fired longtime caddie Steve Williams and was dropped as an endorser by companies including AT&T Inc., Accenture Plc and Procter & Gamble Co.
Even with the turmoil, Woods said the worst part was dealing with injuries. Over the past two years he has had knee and ankle problems that prevented him from playing in the U.S. and British Opens last year before he missed the cut at the 2011 PGA Championship.
“Being on the sideline most of last year was tough,” Woods said. “You can’t make a swing change and all the adaptations I needed to make unless I can practice and I couldn’t do that.”
Woods said the hardest part of the swing change was adapting to longer ball flights.
“I’m not used to hitting my irons with some of the longest hitters,” he said. “I haven’t done that for well over a decade.”
The PGA Tour moves to Humble, Texas, for the Houston Open from March 29 to April 1.