Tiger Woods drove away from Bay Hill wearing the navy blue blazer traditionally awarded to the winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods drove away from Bay Hill wearing the navy blue blazer traditionally awarded to the winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He is more interested in a jacket of a different color, but this was a good start.
Next stop, Augusta National.
Woods couldn't have written a better script Sunday, even if he's guilty of plagiarism. For the second straight year at Bay Hill, he made pivotal putts along the back nine and came to the 18th hole needing a birdie to win. From the middle of the fairway, he had 164 yards to the hole — eerily, the same distance as last year.
Sean O'Hair was in the final group, same as last year.
The putt was far easier this time — only about 12 feet up the hill with a slight left-to-right break — but the outcome was predictable to just about everyone except for the lone voice from the bleachers that blurted out, "Playoff."
Not a chance.
Woods holed the putt, and broke into a routine that also was similar to a year ago. He crouched and backpedaled as the ball rolled to the hole, but instead of slamming his cap to the ground, he punched the air with a roundhouse and hugged his caddie, Steve Williams, who lifted him slightly into the air.
"It feels good to be back in contention, to feel the rush," Woods said. "It's been a while, but God, it felt good."
The final birdie in fading sunlight gave Woods a 3-under 67 and a one-shot victory over O'Hair, who had a five-shot lead going into the final round. It matched Woods' largest comeback on the PGA Tour, and while it wasn't quite as stunning as his rally at Pebble Beach nine years ago, it was no less special.
Woods won for the first time since he returned from reconstructive knee surgery a week after his U.S. Open victory, which kept him out for eight months.
He had two indifferent performances at World Golf Championships — one match play, one stroke play — and there were questions whether he would be ready for the Masters.
Might the blue jacket help him win a green one?
"It does, a lot," Woods said. "This win definitely validates all the things I've been trying to do."
He hit the ball beautifully two weeks ago at Doral and couldn't make a putt. He scraped it around for the better part of three days at Bay Hill and was saved by his short game. Everything fell together in a final round Sunday that was delayed for two hours by rain.
The victory was helpful, but it was the manner in which he won that excited Woods.
For the first time since Torrey Pines, he felt his heart race and his adrenaline rush. After spending four hours trying to catch up to O'Hair, he spent the final hour trying to hang on.
It wasn't without some drama.
O'Hair, who made only one birdie in his round of 73, was clinging to a one-shot lead on the par-3 14th when Woods caught a plugged lie under the lip of the bunker. He blasted out to just over 12 feet, while O'Hair had a 15-footer for birdie.
"Sean looked like he made his putt, and if he makes and I miss, all of a sudden there's three shots," Woods said.
O'Hair missed. Woods made his par putt.
And on the next hole, Woods drained a 25-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead.
The sun began to dip behind the trees, lowering the temperatures, and O'Hair believes that might have cost him. He had a 7-iron from the 16th fairway that was going right of the flag when it fell short and tumbled into the water. Woods hacked out of the rough and hit a splendid wedge to 3 feet to save par, giving him a one-shot lead.
"I think what happened is when the sun was going down a little bit, I guess that kind of proved to me that the ball wasn't quite going as far," O'Hair said.
Woods could relate. He posed over a 4-iron that was headed right for the flag when it came down short and into another plugged lie under the lip of a bunker. This time, Woods made bogey and they were tied again.
It came down to the final hole, which is Woods' domain — especially at Bay Hill.
He won with a birdie on the 72nd hole for the third time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. There was a 15-foot bending birdie to beat Phil Mickelson in 2001, and the 25-footer to beat Bart Bryant last year.
Woods, who finished at 5-under 275, won for the 66th time in his career. And while the finish was so similar to his Bay Hill victory last year, this was different.
"Last year ... there wasn't any big comeback or anything. I was out there just competing as usual," Woods said. "This time, it was a little bit different. I hadn't been in the mix since the U.S. Open, so it was neat to feel the heat on the back nine again."
And did that heat feel any different?
"No it didn't," he said. "It's like Stevie was saying out there, this feels like we hadn't left. You can understand sometimes when some of the older players haven't been in contention in a while and they come back, and then all of a sudden they put themselves in contention and then they win. You just remember how to do it.
"It hasn't been that long for me, but you just have that feel of what to do and it's a matter of getting it done."
Woods got it done, as always.
It was his sixth victory at Bay Hill, the fourth tournament he has won that often. And it kept Mickelson from having a chance to overtake him at No. 1 in the world rankings this week.
But that's of small importance to Woods. He is more interested in silver trophies and green jackets.
For now, navy blue will have to suffice.