Tiger completes a crazy Florida Swing on top

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot at No. 18 during the the final round.

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot at No. 18 during the the final round.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- And to think, last week we didn’t even know if the man could walk.

Having painstakingly followed Tiger Woods for 13 days and 227 holes in the past month, this correspondent was not surprised that he won convincingly March 25 at Bay Hill. His three-city Florida Swing was his comeback in miniature, from dodging questions about his misbehaving putter (and bristling at those about his former instructor’s new tell-all), to sustaining another injury to his left leg, to in the gloaming Sunday, slipping into the backseat of a brown GMC Terrain while donning the winner’s blue blazer.

Said Woods, after his resounding five-shot victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational: “This is our progression.”

What does that look like?

It is March 1, on a steamy morning at PGA National. Having already worked up a sweat, Woods is standing on the range next to coach Sean Foley, staring at images of his swing on a camera. Foley points at the screen, then demonstrates the proper move. Woods acknowledges the difference. A half-hour later, he’s on the first tee, a mechanical man.

That scene is thrown into sharp relief with what we witnessed Sunday afternoon: On the right side of the range, firing back into a freshening breeze, Woods flushes mid-irons as players make their way to the first tee. Tiger’s caddie, Joe LaCava, stands behind his man and occasionally tosses a Nike ball to tee up. Meanwhile, Foley, dressed in all black, rotates around Woods every few swings, nodding in approval. For 20 minutes, the coach utters not a word to the student, hovering nearby more to offer moral support than guidance.

Everything in Woods’ long game now is sharper, cleaner, stronger. LaCava said Woods has needed to adjust to his regained length. Last week, on the par-5 fourth, he hit a 5-iron 232 yards, uphill, with a flight so piercing it practically sheared the blue sky. Having watched Woods pound balls until dusk on Saturday night at Bay Hill, LaCava told his wife: “This guy is calm, and it’s almost like he knows he’s going to win tomorrow.”

Yet recently, the most feared closer in golf has looked more like a beleaguered relief pitcher. Woods blew leads in Australia and Abu Dhabi. In contention at one of his favorite venues, Pebble Beach, he was waxed by Phil Mickelson, head-to-head, by 11 shots.

When the Florida Swing began, at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Woods faced 10 questions in a pre-tournament news conference about his putting. A reporter asked why Woods never had sought counsel from a short-game coach. “Haven’t needed one,” he said. “I’ve won my share of tournaments making some putts.”

All we seemingly remember is the vintage 62 he shot in the final round. But that only masked what otherwise was a pedestrian tournament and lackluster performance on the greens at PGA National, which he blamed throughout the week on his posture, his reads, his distance control.

A week later, at Doral, and all we seemingly remember is Woods’ withdrawal, for tightness in his left Achilles tendon. The day after, he took to Twitter -- the new Tiger embraces social media! -- to suppress concerns about his health, saying he suffered only a mild strain. It was mild, indeed: Beginning March 18, he played a scouting round at Augusta National, the two-day Tavistock Cup exhibition, the Bay Hill pro-am and the tournament proper: eight consecutive rounds for a rehabbing golfer.

And on Day 8, in his final tuneup before Augusta, Woods captured title No. 7 at Arnie’s Place by shooting 70 on a day that was more suited for a U.S. Open, with the greens baked out and crusty, the fairways firm and fast, the wind gusting.

Predictably, there was a rush to declare that Woods is back, though we can’t determine from what exactly. (A self-inflicted scandal? A slump by impossibly high standards?) A look at how drastically the narrative has shifted in his past three tournaments, let alone his past 30 months, reveals how premature that statement might be:

Ernie Els, on March 4: “To me, it was the old Tiger back. It was him being him again.”

Justin Rose, on March 11: “That’s not good news. Hopefully he’s holding himself back for the Masters and doesn’t want to do any more damage.”

Graeme McDowell, on March 25: “I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback.”

This suffices for a typical month in Woods’ never-ending melodrama. Embrace it. Whom we follow now is a rehabilitated 36-year-old chasing the most hallowed record in the game with a body that may betray him, quite literally, at any moment.

Name a more compelling figure in sports.

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