Tiger Woods is a winner on the PGA Tour again – and back up to sixth in the world with The Masters his next start.
After 30 months without an official Tour victory, Woods easily in the end held off the challenge of Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell to claim his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
The five-stroke victory, achieved on 13 under par with a closing 70, came just two weeks after there were fears for the 14-major winner’s career again when he withdrew from the Cadillac Championship in Miami.
That latest injury proved to be only a mild Achilles tendon strain in his left ankle, however, and now Woods is favourite again for the opening major of the season starting on Thursday week.
It is shaping up to be a clash of the giants at Augusta. Rory McIlroy went to world number one by winning the Honda Classic three weeks ago, while last Sunday Luke Donald claimed the spot back by capturing the Transitions Championship.
Woods now has 72 PGA Tour titles to his name. He needs only one more to match the haul by Jack Nicklaus and that would leave just Sam Snead – 82 between 1936 and 1965 – ahead of him.
Apart from his 14 majors, four fewer than Nicklaus, this latest success will feel as sweet as any.
Although he won the Chevron World Challenge last December, that was against only 17 other players and some poor finishes earlier this season had people asking questions about him again.
McDowell had hoped to come from behind to beat Woods, just as he did at the 2010 Chevron in California.
On that occasion his deficit with a round to play was four and this time it was just one – but that became three when he found a plugged lie by the opening green and double-bogeyed.
Woods dropped a shot by three-putting the short next before the fireworks started. McDowell made a 45-footer from the fringe of the third and then holed from over 50 feet for eagle at the long sixth.
He still walked off that green two behind, though, Woods having three birdies in four holes.
That became four in six with a superb approach to two feet on the difficult eighth, then McDowell missed a four-foot par putt to turn in 36 against the 33 of Woods.
The Ulsterman’s putter came good again from 23 feet at the 11th, but when he took six on the long next – off much the better drive – he was four behind once more and now with just six holes remaining.
Both bogeyed the short 14th, Woods made a great par save from 12 feet at the 15th and McDowell missed a six-foot birdie chance on the par-five 16th.
When he followed that by three-putting for bogey it was all over unless Woods did what Jeff Overton did earlier by dumping three balls in the water on the last.
There was no way that was going to happen.
While McDowell was disappointed not to do better than 74, the world ranking points and Ryder Cup points – and the money, of course – were some consolation.
There was no consolation for Ernie Els, though, and he must now win this week’s Houston Open to earn the final spot in The Masters.
With Jim Furyk finishing joint 11th, Els had to finish in second place to climb into the world’s top 50 and qualify that way.
But the former world number one, who a week ago bogeyed the last two holes after leading by one, twice missed from under three feet as he slipped from joint third overnight into a six-way tie for fourth with a 74.
England’s Ian Poulter shot 74, but that was good enough to take solo third – a real boost to his confidence and Ryder Cup hopes only three weeks after being diagnosed with pneumonia.
Woods said: ``It feels good - it feels really good.
“It’s been a lot of hard work and I’m so thankful for a lot of people helping me out along the way. They all know who they are.
“It was incredible to have that type of support here. I used to live here for a long time and it was neat to see some friends come out.”
Asked about The Masters he added on Sky Sports: “I am excited, there’s no doubt. It’s always fun to get there and play and I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built up here.
“The things I’ve been working on are all coming together at the right time.”