ORLANDO, FLORIDA l Tiger Woods finally has won again in an event that means something and officially has re-staked his claim as the undisputed heavyweight champion of golf’s attention span.
Surpassing golf is to be congratulated always. So let us pause and salute a player who still might turn out to be the best who ever lived.
The most immediate next challenge for him will be The Masters, which begins a week from Thursday. But the larger task for Woods won’t have anything to do with birdies and bogeys or azaleas and dogwoods.
Tiger has always been popular. He hasn’t always been likable. There’s a difference.
Somewhere between “Hello, World” in 1996 and the aftermath of the fire hydrant that blew his cover three Thanksgivings ago, he stopped being the distant darling of a large number of his faithful followers. Gone, too, were the days when the ultra-bright smile made up for the deadly dullness of so many guarded, sometimes snarky, press conferences.
Maybe it’s too much to ask. Maybe if you’re born round you don’t die square. Maybe that chip on his shoulder that we used to admire – until the charm wore off – is permanent.
Or maybe we’re the ones that need to get over it.
Hogan’s public personality was as inviting as his cigarette breath. But we still revered the way he swung the golf club and the way he compressed the golf ball. Tiger Woods, in full flight, in 2000 was a glorious sight to behold.
His newest challenge, if he even cares, is to win back the people he lost when he betrayed the image that made him the richest, most recognizable athlete in the world.
Time will tell whether Tiger’s seventh victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Sunday redirects his chase for Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors, or whether chronic injuries curtail that pursuit. The fact that Woods now has won 72 times on the PGA Tour is stunning. The fact that he turns 37 in December is startling.
The only thing certain is that we will be watching closely. Woods still has a lot to own up to thanks to the unseemly social network he created that destroyed his marriage and fractured his family.
But even in the good times it can’t be easy being him. Not with Twitter, YouTube and the tabloids sucking the oxygen out of every move he makes when he isn’t holed up on his private yacht or training like a Navy Seal behind the walls of his multimillion-dollar south Florida compound.
Until Bay Hill it had been almost 2½ years since Woods won on Tour at the BMW Championship. And his breakthrough week at Palmer’s place had gotten off to an inauspicious start in Wednesday’s pro-am. A camera clicked in his backswing. He tried to stop the club. And the next thing anybody knew he was limping.
Thankfully, by the end of the round he had walked it off and insisted he was “good to go.” A 3-under-par 69 Thursday followed.
“My bad days aren’t as bad as they used to be,” he said in a rare moment of candor.
There’s really nothing “bad” about a 69 until you put it in the context of the Friday 65 that featured seven birdies, no bogeys and catapulted him to a share of the 36-hole lead.
On the 10th hole Friday, a wayward drive bounced fortuitously off a storm fence and back to a spot where Woods had just enough stance to knock his second on the green and save par.
On the short par-5 16th he slammed his club into the ground after impact only to watch as his second shot clear the greenside water hazard by inches. Two putts later he had another birdie.
These were breaks that turned out to be clues.
Saturday brought with it a workmanlike 71 that left him alone in the 54-hole lead at 11 under, one shot ahead of Graeme McDowell, Ernie Els lurking three back. The stage was set. And Tiger was just 18 holes from the only place he’s really ever been comfortable.
The only third-round blemish occurred on the 15th hole when, all in the span of a second, a boy fainted at a nearby concession stand, a woman screamed and Woods pumped his tee ball out of bounds. The result was a double-bogey. Longtime Tiger watchers noted and nodded when his response was more determined than annoyed.
Sunday, Woods squared off with former U.S. Open champion McDowell in the final pairing. McDowell is a Northern Irishman of boundless competitive spirit and stamina. Woods simply wore him out. His 13-under-par 72-hole total was five better than runner-up McDowell’s.
“Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best, winning golf tournaments,” said McDowell, ever the sportsman.
Clearly, Woods winning again is the biggest story in golf this year if not the best. Woods’ persona is now reaffirmed as the biggest in golf, if not the best.
Maybe we’re dreaming to think he could one day be as likeable as he is popular. Maybe even those who were most disappointed in him should root that he will.