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Golf

The Tiger Woods Winless Streak Ends at Arnold Palmer Invitational

There was a moment on Saturday evening where I tried to convince myself that the most compelling scenario on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational would have Ernie Els shaking Arnold Palmer’s hand on the 18th green and winning his way back into The Masters. But, like a raging bull (absent De Niro) I was blinded by red — Sunday red.

Tiger Woods, atop the leaderboard, attempting to end a 26-event winless streak on the PGA Tour that dated back to September of 2009, it doesn’t really get any more compelling in golf. And despite having had his image tarnished, if not completely exposed as fallacy, “Tiger Woods is good for golf,” has been a universal chorus line from golf fans everywhere. People seem reluctant to begrudge great golf, and when Tiger Woods is on, he supplies it in truckloads.

On Sunday, Tiger backed that truck up to Bay Hill Club & Lodge and collected his first PGA Tour victory since the BMW Championship in 2009. He’d shown several flashes over the past 12 months, and people like myself have been gauging Woods’ play on a weekly basis, cautious to the possibility of a premature proclamation of resurgence.

He’s back.

It doesn’t mean that he’ll steamroll Augusta and it doesn’t mean that he’ll storm past Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors, but what it does mean is that Tiger’s best is back to being better than anybody else’s. That wasn’t always the case.

Rory McIlroy‘s best was definitely better, and several other players could certainly make a claim over the last two and a half years. At one point Woods fell all the way to No. 58 in the Official World Golf Rankings (which nobody understands), and he was very nearly on the fringe of falling outside the Top 10 in the RWGR (which only I understand).

However, with this win, Tiger will surge back into the Top 10 of the rankings that — kinda, sorta — seem to matter, and he’s already back at No. 1 in my rankings, which most definitely don’t.

To understand the logic behind my system, you have to put exactly what Tiger accomplished this week into perspective and you also have to presume for a moment that Eldrick plans on re-assuming his identity as “Tiger” — he may have gone by Tiger, but I think we can all agree that he wasn’t himself for quite some time.

Two weeks ago today, Tiger Woods was forced to withdraw from the WGC-Cadillac Championship with a strained left Achilles, an injury that had given him problems in the past. We would find out later that Tiger made the cautionary decision to withdraw to prevent further injury, but with the fragility of Woods raising serious question, people were legitimately concerned that Woods wouldn’t be able to play The Masters.

Woods updated his injury status via Twitter, an oddity I covered in a column all to itself, and announced his plans to return this week at Bay Hill. What Woods didn’t tell us was that he planned on playing a practice round at Augusta a week prior today, and that he still planned on playing in the Tavistock Cup on Monday and Tuesday.

That schedule put Tiger Woods on the golf course for eight consecutive days on the heels (pun fully intended) of an injury that nearly qualifies as chronic. And in light of all that, Tiger didn’t just win, he dominated.

A one stroke lead heading into Sunday turned into a five stroke victory. He was No. 1 for the week in greens in regulation, No. 4 in strokes gained-putting, and No. 11 in driving distance. In other words, he had it all going from tee to green.

And if there was ever a place where Tiger Woods was capable of such a feat, it would definitely have to be Bay Hill and the Arnold Palmer Invitational — a tournament that he has now won seven times. To put that in perspective, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, who have both been ranked No. 1 in the world since Tiger last held that title, have won a total of seven PGA Tour events combined in their careers.

However, despite Tiger’s familiarity with Arnold’s layout, the expectations for Woods this week were relatively low, all things considered and Tiger’s personal expectations notwithstanding. The grueling week of play was scheduled, in all likelihood, to allow Woods a full week off to recover in the event that Tiger’s Achilles did flare up.

So much for that.

Now, a week of scheduled recovery will be used for fine-tuning with Augusta in mind. It’s a track that Tiger knows just as well, if not better, than Bay Hill, but it is also a place that Tiger has failed to conquer since 2005. And that can’t possibly sit well with the impossibly demanding Woods, who cursed a 53-footer that he lagged to three feet with a four stroke lead on the 17th hole.

On Sunday, I may have been seeing red, but for the next 14 days, Tiger will be seeing green.