ORLANDO – Tiger Woods gave us hope for a time, but ultimately Sunday wasn’t his day.
The 42-year-old began the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational five shots back of Henrik Stenson. He got within one of the lead after his sixth birdie of the day (at the 13th) moved him to 5 under for the round and 12 under overall.
At that point, it seemed the place might come unhinged as Woods threatened to roar down the stretch for his ninth API title, first PGA Tour victory in five years and 80th overall.
Ultimately, though, a ball out of bounds at No. 16 ended any hopes he had at victory. It led to two late bogeys that relegated Woods to a 3-under 69.
Still, that’s 10 under for the week and gave him a T-5 finish. Woods grabbed his third straight top-12 showing with that performance. His comeback brilliance is still on course.
And for a brief time, there appeared to be a wild Tiger Sunday going down.
Woods was in danger of an early bogey after finding the green at the par-3 second and leaving his 54-footer some 6.5 feet short. But he walked in the comebacker for a par-par start.
Two holes later, he found the par-5 fourth in two and casually two-putted from 30 feet for his first birdie of the day. He then nearly rammed in a 40-footer for birdie from off the green at the par-4 fifth, but his ball hit the middle of the flagstick with major speed and somehow bounded back an inch in front of the cup.
He then hit two marvelous shots at the par-5 sixth, knocking his second to 13 feet from 227 yards. With eagle on his mind, Woods even started walking in the putt, but the ball hit the right lip and went 4 feet by. He would make the comebacker to move to 2 under for the round, 9 under overall and within four of the lead.
A birdie at the par-4 eighth after a fantastic approach to 6 feet kept him within four. Now 3 under for the round and 10 under overall, Woods proceeded to hit his driver at the par-4 ninth miles right. He’d end up bogeying the hole and falling five back when he couldn’t coax in an 18-footer for par.
Woods had gone out in 2-under 34, but he was still as many shots back as he started the day. He needed something special.
And for a time, it seemed to be brewing.
Woods knocked an approach to 8 feet at the par-4 10th and drained the birdie putt. His approach barely cleared the water at the par-4 11th and, after chipping to 4 feet, his putt horseshoed around the hole before dropping for par.
An up and down from the bunker at the par-5 12th meant another birdie, and when Woods drained a 13-footer for birdie at the par-4 13th, he was 12 under and one off the lead.
But that would prove to be the day’s apex for Woods.
He narrowly missed a 23-footer for birdie at the par-4 15th, and then his chances totally fell apart on the tee at the par-5 16th.
Woods had failed to hit the fairway on that hole all week, going right each day. Somehow, he had birdied the hole each time. But on this occasion, with driver, he made a fatal mistake.
A huge pull resulted in Woods pumping that tee shot out of bounds. He did well to make bogey after having to re-tee. But that bogey on a simple par 5 pushed him back to 11 under and three behind (after a Rory McIlroy birdie in the meantime to move to the solo lead at 14 under) with two to play.
McIlroy then made it two in a row with a birdie at No. 14 and moved to 15 under. Woods was five behind after his tee shot at the par-3 17th found the greenside bunker, he blasted out to 13 feet and missed the par putt.
He had to drain a 12-footer at the last just to avoid a bogey-bogey-bogey finish. Thankfully, he did just that.
This was certainly an anti-climactic close to Woods’ week. But now he’s gone 12-T2-T5 in his last three starts. His Bay Hill showing once again proves his comeback is a promising event.
His driver (and driving overall) was decent on Sunday – he hit 9/14 fairways – but the misses still popped up, with one at the worst time. Clearly, his driving remains a point of concern at the moment.
His approach play seemed to be better Sunday than the previous two days even if he only hit 11 greens in regulation in the final round. Woods still has to shore things up a bit there, but he’s in a good spot there.
His work around and on the greens is unimpeachable and the true catalyst in his comeback being so strong.
This was likely Woods’ last start before the Masters, and he’ll enter Augusta National with expectations that he can contend for his fifth green jacket.
Will it come to fruition? We’ll know in a few weeks.
But that there are strong expectations that it will happen shows how much Woods’ play in the last few months has erased strong doubts about his future.