Tiger Woods shot a 3-under 69 in the final round of the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational that could have (and probably should have) been even better. Woods played the first 15 holes in 5 under with six birdies and had the round of the day going. He got within one stroke of the co-lead between Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson but hit his tee shot out of bounds on No. 16 to end a last-ditch effort at win No. 9 at this event.
"I was caught. I didn't decide what I was going to do," said Woods. "If I hit driver I got to fit it, I got to cut it in there. And I was, in the back of my mind, I said, 'Why don't you just bomb it over the top?' And it was like a 315, 320 carry. And I bailed out and hit a bad shot and that's on me for not committing."
Woods followed that mess with a bogey at the par-3 17th and finished with a 10-under 278 on the week, eight behind winner Rory McIlroy. He finished inside the top five in consecutive starts for the first time since the 2013 Masters and Players Championship.
Despite the top five showing, it was a bit of a disappointing finish from Woods, who made everyone think the impossible was going to happen. Even with major champions Stenson, McIlroy and Justin Rose starting the day ahead of him, Woods made it feel like he was about to turn the board (and possibly the golf world) upside down with just three weeks to go before Masters Sunday.
And it might have happened had he not badly pulled that tee shot on No. 16. Tiger shot a 34 on the front nine and birdied three of his first four on the back, sinking putts of 13 feet, 8 feet and 5 feet. Even after all these years and the innumerable ridiculous heaters he's been on, it was still shocking to watch unfold.
It all came unwound at the very end, but like last week's finish at the Valspar Championship, I'm not sure it matters. Woods has now turned in three straight tournaments where he finished inside the top 15 and is the favorite for the 2018 Masters. We won't see him again until he tees off at some point on Thursday, April 5 in Round 1 at Augusta National, but he's planted the seed of belief. That he can not just play well at and contend for a green jacket. But also that he can win it.
"If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January I would have taken it in a heartbeat," said Woods of his play over the last month. "Everything was an unknown. I didn't know what I was going to feel like, what I was going to do, what swing I was going to make. Especially Torrey Pines -- was the rough going to be the same pain I was going to feel like I felt last year? I don't know. But coming through that I've gotten a little better, a little bit sharper and I worked my way up there into the leaderboard back-to-back weeks and had a chance, which is nice."
Assuming he doesn't make another start until then, Tiger will enter the Masters off 3 straight top-12 finishes for the first time since 2008.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) March 18, 2018
Here are four takeaways from Tiger's final round at Bay Hill.
1. Shot of the week? Tiger hit some truly stunning approach shots this week, but the one into No. 6 on Sunday may have finished at the top of the class for me. He had 226 to the pin after a 317-yard drive and just pummeled a long iron to 13 feet. This is Dustin Johnson-like stuff! It also makes me giddy for what we're going to see at Augusta.
2. Tiger, all in early: Woods needed something in the low 60s, and he knew it. He got aggressive early and even tried to house a driver to reach the green at the par-4 5th hole. It was a blast watching an uninhibited Tiger play as aggressively as he could because he knew he'd need something in the mid-60s to hold the trophy.
3. Driver let him down: Tiger finished 71st in a field of 77 in strokes gained driving this week and lost strokes to the field every single day. Often that was because of one really wayward tee shot (see below), but it doesn't matter how it happened, only that it cost him the event. His iron stingers and flighted 3-woods when he hits them are gorgeous, but the big stick still needs (a lot of) work.
4. One bad swing: Just one! The margins are so thin at the top of leaderboards like this one. Even despite the driver woes, Tiger was just one swing -- a double-crossed tee ball out of bounds on No. 16 -- from really having a chance to win this golf tournament. He played No. 16 with so much flair over the first three days and made birdie in each of the first three rounds. He badly needed a birdie or better on Sunday to post something special and put pressure on the other major winners behind him. He didn't get it. He didn't even come close. And it might not have mattered anyway.
"Even though I got up there I just knew I needed to keep making birdies," said Woods. "Those guys had so many holes behind me ... I got to 16, I figure I got to play the last three holes in 3 under to have a chance and probably force a playoff. And maybe that wouldn't have been good enough the way Rory is playing back there."