ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods looked like the world’s best player in his last start. A win this week could make such an assessment more than subjective.
Woods could return to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking with a win this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Rory McIlroy’s early-season struggles and Woods’ two wins have put the top spot back within Woods’ reach.
“It’s been a long process,” Woods said. “I was hurt for a long time, and at the same time, I had to make swing changes that were drastically different than what I was doing. … To gradually work my way back, that’s something I’m proud of.”
Woods, who fell outside the world’s top 50 in the wake of his personal scandal, last held the top spot on Oct. 30, 2010. This is Woods’ 788th week in the top 10 of the OWGR; he is tied with Ernie Els for the most all-time.
This is Woods’ first title defense since his 2009 scandal. He held a one-shot lead over Graeme McDowell through 54 holes in 2012, then shot a final-round 70 for a five-shot win. It was Woods’ first victory since the 2009 BMW Championship. He’s won four times in 18 official PGA Tour starts since.
The focus returns tomorrow to Woods’ on-course performance after his life away from the game was the focus Monday. That’s when Woods and girlfriend Lindsey Vonn publicly confirmed their relationship with a series of social-media posts and professional photographs.
“We’re very happy where we’re at, but we also wanted to limit the stalk-a-razzi and all those sleazy websites that are out there following us,” he said. “I’ve had situations where it’s been very dangerous for my kids. We basically devalued the first photos. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is in our society right now, and we felt like it was the best thing to do. I’m very happy about it.”
His win here last year was his seventh at Arnold Palmer’s place, and his third in his past four Bay Hill appearances. He also won four in a row from 2000-03. His average margin of victory in those seven wins? 3.85 strokes. Three of his victories have been by a single shot, including the 2008 and 2009 wins that were punctuated by 72nd-hole birdies. The other four wins here have been by four or more strokes, including an 11-shot romp in 2003.
Woods’ success here dates back to his junior-golf days. He won the 1991 U.S. Junior, his first of six consecutive U.S. Golf Association championships, at Bay Hill; he also was the stroke-play medalist that week.
His two victories in 2013 have come at places he’s had past success – Torrey Pines and Doral. “These two wins I’ve had this year, I’ve built myself some nice leads, which means that I’ve played really well, and things are starting to come around and become more efficient day in and day out,” Woods said.
His victory two weeks ago at the World Golf Championship-Cadillac Championship reminded many of the Woods of old. He held a four-shot lead through 54 holes, eventually winning by two shots over Steve Stricker. A pre-tournament putting lesson from Stricker helped Woods to a career-low 100 putts that week. Woods exhibited a level of control that reminded many of some of the best years of his career.
Woods will begin the tournament on Bay Hill’s 10th tee at 8:05 a.m. Thursday. He’ll play alongside Els and Justin Rose. Woods played just nine holes Wednesday after the pro-am was shortened because of rain.
This will be Woods’ last start before the Masters, where he’ll try to resume his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ major record by winning his 15th major. Woods’ last major victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open. Some have said he won’t be “back,” whatever that means, until he wins a major.
“I feel like I’m headed in the right direction,” Woods said. “I don’t want to become as good as I once was. I want to become better.”
That’s a tall task. He can regain one of his old titles this week, though: No. 1 in the world.