The Houston Open organisers had been planning on billing this week's tournament not simply as the usual Masters warm-up, but more as the event when Phil Mickelson would finally get his shot at becoming the world No 1. Alas, their marketing department must think again. Houston – like Mickelson, like Padraig Harrington, like any male golfer with designs on sporting immortality – has a problem. And, inevitably, its name is Tiger Woods.
After the thrilling climax in Orlando late on Sunday evening, there is only one show in town again and it is what Sean O'Hair, the Bay Hill runner-up, somewhat bitterly referred to as "The Tiger Show". There was always going to be an overload of hype when Woods first returned to the winner's enclosure after last summer's knee reconstruction; but as ever with this startling sportsman the action merely seemed to warrant the reaction.
The American network, NBC, took the unprecedented decision of cutting into their precious prime-time Sunday schedule to broadcast the delayed denouement. NBC was not disappointed. The audience was treated to a climax that had the intrigue of The Wire, the drama of CSI and the inevitably of The Sopranos. Some poor victim was destined to suffer Tiger's roar.
As the dusk rapidly descended and the lights twinkled brightly at nearby Disney World, Woods was crouched over a 16-footer to win his sixth Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was one of those Tiger moments that appear frozen in time. Just as he was about to pull back the putter, a fan yelled "play-off" and as the PGA Tour hurriedly made plans to hold a sudden-death shoot-out yesterday morning, Woods backed off. "I thought to myself, 'Nah'," he later revealed. There would be no fifth day. Up he stepped, the ball found the hole and Woods embarked on a wild celebration. Mickey Mouse could have his city back... Yet now there will be only one favourite when the circus rolls up at Augusta next Monday.
It has taken Woods three events to reclaim his mantle of Mr Untouchable and yesterday the bookies were reporting one of their "avalanches of interest" that has forced the price on a fifth green jacket to drop all the way to 2-1. Punters should beware when suspecting Woods to be a Masters certainty as the last two renewals have seen him even shorter in the market. In 2007, Zach Johnson denied him; last year it was Trevor Immelman. And, on both occasions, Woods had rather more than three tournaments in nine months under his sponsored belt.
Nevertheless, it was difficult to resist the notion that everything is clicking into place, right on time. Johnson, himself, played in the final three-ball with Woods on Sunday and admitted the effect it had on him. "The guy is amazing, I am in awe. I don't want to say shock. I'm in awe," said Johnson. "It was unbelievable drama. I tried to stay in my own world... that's kind of hard when you're seeing what you're seeing. When Tiger needs to step up, he does it. It was so impressive to watch."
O'Hair had a different take, although perhaps it was easy to forgive his assault on the general perception after what he had just gone through. The 26-year-old Texan had begun that final, rain-delayed day with a five-shot lead, but lost it, regained it, handed it back and then clawed it back to nothing again by the time it came to the 18th. O'Hair's own birdie attempt finished three feet above the hole, leaving him powerless to do anything but look on and pray. The year previously he had stood on exactly the same green as the irrelevant one of three when a Woods' grandstand finish had broken the heart of Bart Bryant. Surely he had anticipated it all over again?
"It's not like it's The Tiger Show and I'm just out there to watch him," snapped O'Hair. "That's the one thing the media thinks about the guys out here and it's not like that. We're trying to win golf tournaments, and he just happens to be that good. But just because he's that good doesn't mean we're out there watching him."
Maybe not, but everyone else was; and to everyone else it did appear as if normal servitude had just resumed for the other professionals. Certainly Woods felt a sense of déjà vu. speaking of how "good it was to get the rush again". "It's been awhile, but God, it felt good," he said. "It's like Stevie [Williams, his caddie] was saying out there. This feels like we hadn't left. 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."
His last-round 67 to O'Hair's 73 meant that this was the 88th time Woods had "got it done" in his 13 years as a professional. And what made it all the more chilling for his rivals was that Woods was far from his best at Bay Hill. While his putting was an imperious as it has ever been (he averaged 25 putts per round, which in lay man's terms translates as single-putting 11 greens per round), his driving was as erratic as its ever been. There was a good reason for this.
At Doral two weeks before, the respective form of his long-game and his short-game had been vice versa. So Woods put away his driver and hot-housed his putting stroke under the guiding eye of his coach, Hank Haney. Inevitably it did the trick on one aspect – and pulled the joker on other. The challenge for the two men in these next days before the Masters is obvious. "I'd like to hit the ball like I did at Doral and putt like I did this week," said Woods.
What this pupil likes he usually gets and Woods happens to like nothing more than proving people wrong. A bizarre and frankly daft whisper had been doing the rounds and increasing in volume in the wake of his first two, indifferent comeback tournaments. It went along the lines of "Tiger will never be the same again". Jack Nicklaus knows and admires his successor better than anyone and is not about to under-rate the man, but even he was beginning to spot a question mark where there had not been one before.
"I really don't know," replied Nicklaus recently when asked by the famous US journalist Rick Reilly, whether Woods breaking his record of 18 majors was "still the five-star lock we all thought it was?" "Tiger's got an unbelievable work ethic, and he's so fit. But that knee makes it a little less certain."
Much, if not all of the doubt, had been removed by yesterday morning, definitely when it comes to his immediate standing among his own peers. The rankings once again show Woods with a sizeable lead over Mickelson, who can now use Houston as the testing ground he had always meant it to be. Harrington, meanwhile, will also line up in that field, trying to refocus his mission to become the third golfer in history to win three straight majors and so put behind the two bogeys in the final three holes that jettisoned him out of the Bay Hill top 10.
Then there is Rory McIlroy. The 19-year-old from Northern Ireland was heading to Texas yesterday after having his first taste of Augusta with two practice rounds over the weekend. As McIlroy surveyed the majesty of the place, the newest prince of the fairways would naturally have fancied his chances in the Masters. Yet in the state directly below him, the senior member of golfing royalty was busy nailing down his throne. Tiger is back. And this time there is no dispute that it's the real Tiger.
Down but not out: The stars who bounced back
In February 1949, the American golf legend suffered a double-fracture of the pelvis, as well as fractures to his collar bone, ribs and left ankle, and near-fatal blood clots after his car crashed into a bus. Hogan defied doctors who warned he may never walk again by returning to tournament golf only 11 months later to take second place in the 1950 Los Angeles Open.
The Austrian Formula One driver was left in a coma, and scarred for life, following a crash at Nurburgring in 1976. Just six weeks after, having undergone reconstructive surgery on his eyelids, he was driving again – and finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix.
The victim of a brutal attack after a fan broke through the crowd and plunged a 10-inch knife into her back, Seles returned in 1995, winning her comeback tournament, the Canadian Open.
In 1996, Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. In 1998 he returned to the sport and went on to win the Tour de France a record-breaking seven consecutive years in a row.
Despite being tipped by many to never play again after suffering a horrific broken leg and dislocated ankle in February 2008, the Arsenal striker Eduardo celebrated his return 358 days later by scoring an emotional brace against Cardiff in an FA Cup fourth-round replay.