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Almost -- ALMOST -- as if he never left, Tiger's back on top

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Tiger Woods leads the Bay Hill tournament for putting percentage inside ten feet. (Getty Images)  
Tiger Woods leads the Bay Hill tournament for putting percentage inside ten feet. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- It was, in many ways, a crystalline Tiger Woods moment.

After he coaxed his approach shot onto the 18th green on Sunday, knowing with absolute certainly that a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was again and at last within his grasp, he turned to caddie Joe LaCava with a mixed look of relief, triumph and several other emotions etched on his mug.

They exchanged a high-five of such ferocity that it could have registered on a spring training radar gun. Woods barked something that the TV microphones didn't quite pick up. Just as well.

"He said, 'F-yeah,'" laughed LaCava.

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Music to many ears.

Just like that, Woods was back atop the firmament, rough edges and all, and taking aim on Augusta National and the assortment of players who have been piling up wins while he was reconstituting and reclaiming his personal and private lives.

Never one to wax poetic about the magnitude of anything beyond the obvious, Woods looked happier and more fulfilled, with a splash of vindication and validation on top, than in roughly three years.

"It was pure joy," Woods said.

For those suffering from Tiger fatigue, take a deep breath. The handwringing and haranguing are over, and so is the longest winless slump of his career. Of course, the never-ending tale of the most scrutinized sports figure of modern times merely morphs into how far and how fast the former No. 1 can climb from here, doesn't it?

With a vintage performance that belied the 30-month span since his last PGA Tour victory, Woods hit all the right shots at the right time, kept the pursuers at arm's length and then some, and efficiently suffocated any tension from the proceedings.

"He was a man on a mission today," La Cava said. "He was pretty jacked up. He was out to prove himself. He probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow."

Who doesn't?

For Woods and Bay Hill, it was like turning back the clock, or flipping on the radio and hearing Margaritaville, Stairway to Heaven and Hey Jude in fast succession. You know the lyrics, have memorized the melody, and know the ending rarely ends with a fadeout.

He won by five over playing partner Graeme McDowell, who made a series of long putts to keep from getting run over, but the latter was punching out of his weight class on Sunday. It was a comprehensive and convincing victory that the distinct patina of Woods, circa 2008 or so, and has everybody wondering where the trajectory will track hereafter.

"He expects to win every time he plays," La Cava shrugged, the flag from the 18th green tucked in his back pocket as a souvenir. "I don't think six wins or so are out of the realm of possibility."

Speaking for Woods' tour brethren: "Gulp."

Bubba Watson was still in college when Woods was making the loudest noise at the apex of his powers.

"His aura, every shot was going to be perfect, every putt you thought was going to go in," Watson said Sunday. "Then he got hurt, changed his swing. He's just getting back from that."

That includes a few other well-chronicled issues that had Woods hitting it sideways for most of the past 2 ½ years, but the victory at Arnie's Place was inevitable based on the way he'd been playing since late last fall. With no leg issues this week, the win was the equivalent of a football de-cleater, just with a different type of spikes.

Carving a variety of whistling shots that he hasn't hit with such consistency in years, Woods tore up his former hometown track and was the lone player in the final eight twosomes to break par, firing a fairly stress-free, 2-under 70.

"In these conditions, on this golf course, in this wind, that's unbelievable," said Watson, who shot 72.

Forget the conditions -- Woods has had plenty of tumult in his life since he last won on the PGA Tour in September, 2009, relating to nearly every element of his personal and professional life. His marriage is over, his swing coach and sidekick caddie are long gone, his legs have suffered multiple injuries, and he moved to a huge mansion on South Florida's pricey Jupiter Island, where he presumably lives alone. Call him an island unto himself.

Now 36, Woods is on the back nine of his career, but has finally logged his 72nd PGA Tour win, leaving him one shy of Jack Nicklaus' total for No. 2 on the all-time victory list. He could tie the Bear in two weeks.

"That's nice, but I am looking forward to the green jacket part of it," said Woods, who hasn't won a major since mid-2008.

For a while, when he was struggling to stay healthy and keep the ball anywhere on green grass, plenty wondered whether he'd ever win again. After Sunday, it's become more akin to, "how many more?"

Former Masters champ Zach Johnson, the victim of a Woods victory in an unofficial event in December, nearly laughed when the subject of the Woods' comeback was broached. Resurrection? Redemption? He didn't want to hear it.

"I don't think he ever really went anywhere," Johnson said, noting the series of health issues and swing changes. "In my view, he started from scratch again. It does not surprise me in the least. He never ceases to amaze me."

Any career obits, Johnson said, were as premature as they were over-oxygenated. Another whiff by us write-it-up-right-now types, Johnson said.

"Garbage," Johnson said. "He's the best player I've ever seen -- making putts when you had to make them, executing when he needed to execute, nobody's ever played the game better than him."

Well, to be accurate, plenty of others had, until very recently, when Woods had again begun to make almost weekly appearances on the leaderboards. His timing was impeccable. In two days, a controversial book by his former coach, Hank Haney, will hit the shelves, and the blowback has already been greatly minimized.

His new coach, Sean Foley, all but ran from the media afterward, letting his pupil enjoy the spotlight.

"I don't need to be validated," said Foley, who gave Woods a huge bear hug in the middle of the street behind the 18th green. "It's all a process of learning."

But it was great to see his man happy again in a professional context, especially two weeks after he limped off the course at Doral with yet another leg injury. Based on the shots Woods was hitting in a stiff breeze on Sunday, the leg issues might be the final wildcard in the comeback story. Well, that and his streaky putter.

"I'm happy see him like this, because winning, outside of his kids, is what matters to him most," Foley said.

It had been a long time coming for Woods, expected to climb to No. 6 in the world on Monday, who hadn't won an official PGA Tour event in 2 years, 6 months and 12 days. Or 923 days, if you want it served up in yet another sobering fashion.

"It was great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best -- winning golf tournaments," McDowell said.

Where else but at Bay Hill, located about a half-mile by boat from the fire hydrant and oak tree where the slide all began? The victory was Woods' seventh at Bay Hill, which has been the tonic for what ails him several times in the past, like when he was coming off surgeries, mini-slumps and the like. It represents the most wins at any single event -- he also has six victories at Firestone and the Torrey Pines tour stop.

La Cava sensed during a practice session after the third round on Saturday night that Woods had a steely resignation about him, that after some close calls over the past few weeks, something was about to happen.

The caddie beat everybody to the next question, though his crystal ball isn't much better than ours.

"One win doesn't mean you are back, back," La Cava said, meaning a return to the peak of his boss' previous powers. "Who knows what he's going to do down the road?"

More eyeballs than ever will be watching to find out.

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