Woods sparkles at Bay Hill
ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods delivered his second-consecutive hell of a finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Sunday night – emphasis there on both hell and night.
A year ago, Woods rolled in a tricky, downhill 25-footer for birdie to beat Bart Bryant by a shot; he then fist-pumped, unconsciously slammed his hat down on Bay Hill Club & Lodge’s 18th green, high-fived caddie Stevie Williams, and seconds later – as Woods recalled earlier this week – said, “Stevie, what the hell are you doing with my hat?”
Sunday, just over a week from the opening of the gates at Augusta National, Woods drained an uphill 15-footer for birdie and 3-under 67 to beat Sean O’Hair (73) by a hair and a stroke; he then fist-pumped, jumped into the arms of Williams, and seconds later walked over to greet Arnold Palmer, who was bearing the same thunderstruck expression as the thousands of mortals surrounding the 18th green.
“Unbelievable,” said Palmer, shaking his head as Woods walked on toward the scoring trailer and Williams approached.
“He’s just unbelievable,” Palmer gasped to Williams.
“You didn’t think he’d miss it, did you?” Williams asked.
“Helllll no,” Palmer said, in a high pitch the King may never reach again – well, until maybe next year, when Woods will try for the second consecutive year to successfully top a performance that seemingly can’t be topped.
Last year was about suspense; Sunday, at least when Woods got to the 18th green just before 8 p.m., was about the grand reentrance.
It was more spectacle than spectacular, if you can let Tiger Woods make a distinction there.
Last year, we didn’t let ourselves believe the putt was going in, a 25-footer with five feet of break to blame.
This year, we only waited for it to drop – and when it did, the man in the red shirt looked like a man on a Hollywood red carpet.
It was closing time, all right. The scoreboard across the lake that fronts the 18th green was only readable thanks to a spotlight that had been turned on. Photographers panicked about proper lighting. When someone mentioned to Palmer that there still might be a chance for one playoff hole, if necessary, “I said, ‘I didn’t think so,’ ” Palmer said.
Woods took a few practice putts, then backed away as a premature flashbulb and “Get in the hole!” blurted out from a residential backyard across the pond. He stepped back toward his ball, repeated his pre-putt routine, and stroked what he would later call “a pure putt.”
“I hit it really solid,” said Woods, who set up his game-winning birdie with a blistering 3-wood off the tee and a near-perfect 7-iron approach, “and it held its line all the way there.”
Everyone lost it, including Woods, who began to wind up for his signature, victory-pump almost as soon as the ball left the blade. At the same time, flashbulbs pierced the night like fireflies the size of John Daly. Tiger growled. The crowd howled. If fireworks had gone off during the 10 seconds or so it took to celebrate, no one would have noticed.
Sure, there were no hat tricks from Woods this time, besides the fact that it signaled Woods’ sixth victory at Bay Hill, a double hat-trick of sorts. But there were hysterics and – what is surely a product of 10 months of waiting for Tiger, a 1-hour, 50-minute rain delay, flashbulbs and shiny, red Nike shirts – virtual PGA Tour pyrotechnics. (Even if NBC’s night-killing technology didn’t do them justice on television.)
“It’s so difficult to win out here, and any time you can win, you’re obviously going to celebrate,” Woods said earlier in the week when asked about his hat-slamming victory in 2008. “You celebrate in different ways because they’re all different. Sometimes you struggle to get in, sometimes you play really well, other times it’s close, sometimes you have a nice little cushion.
“It’s all different, and that’s what makes it fun.”
For O’Hair, who entered the day with a five-shot lead, it was only deafening and defeating.
“It’s not like it’s The Tiger Show and I’m just out there to watch him,” said O’Hair, who also happened to be on the 18th green last year when Woods drained the game-winner. “And I think that’s the one thing the media thinks about the guys out here, and it’s not about that.
“We’re trying to win golf tournaments, and he just happens to be that good.”
Zach Johnson, the former Masters champ you may or may not have realized also tagged along in the final group Sunday, walked out of the scoring trailer a few minutes after Woods’ buzzer-beater with his arms extended.
“Did I even play today?” Johnson joked.
Welcome back, Tiger.