Woods turns back time to win from the front

Former world No 1 shows old authority to seal first victory in two years and become Masters favourite

It's official: Tiger Woods is back. After 862 days and one very
public scandal, the phenomenon in red at last won another
"official" title last night. It was his seventh Bay Hill victory
but, as the smile on his face confirmed, none was anywhere near as
sweet as this.

The question now must be will this be one of the most significant triumphs of his career? The game of golf hopes so. Bring on the Masters. Has there ever been such anticipation for the first major of the season? Certainly Woods ensured the hype barometer would topple off the wall after this recreation of his glory days.

With a peerless exhibition of ball control, he sucked the drama out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the challenge out of his rivals to prevail by five shots to breach the gap back to the Australian Masters in November 2009.

"It feels good – really good," said Woods, after a 70 for a 13-under total secured his first win on the PGA Tour in two and a half years. "This is the result of a lot of hard work. I'm excited about this Masters. My game's coming together at the right time."

Credit to Graeme McDowell; he stayed as long as he could on his partner's heels, but had to be content with beating the Englishman Ian Poulter into third. With Woods in this mood it was going to take the very best of the Ulsterman. And although there were three putts over 30 feet on the first 11 holes which dangled the prospect of a close fight, too many errors crept into his 74.

But then, Woods had cranked up the pressure in extremely tough conditions and forced the mistakes. This was the Tiger of old. Was this really the same man who just two weeks before had limped out of the WGC event in Doral with seven holes remaining complaining of an Achilles injury? It was as if the previous 28 months had not happened, never mind the previous 14 days. Woods was supreme in the front-running role, as he always was. This was the 53rd time he had converted a third-round lead into victory – out of 62 attempts. Utterly remarkable.

So much for The Big Miss, the controversial expose by his former coach, Hank Haney which will be published tomorrow. The title referred to his wayward driving, but in Florida yesterday it was more like The Big Hiss, as, with his new swing, he defied Haney with a consummate display off the tee.

To think, Woods was last in the driving stats at Doral. At Bay Hill he was top; just as he was on the putting charts from within 10 feet. As Woods holed clutch putts to deny McDowell anything resembling a sniff, it all looked so easy and, yes, so ominous with Augusta, the scene of four of his 14 major triumphs, looming. Little wonder the bookmakers have re-installed him as the clear favourite ahead of previous market leader, Rory McIlroy.

The ignominious loss to the unheralded Englishman Robert Rock in Abu Dhabi two months ago – when holding the lead going into the final round – suddenly seems a long time ago as he climbs back up to sixth on the world rankings. There was a hiccup on the second hole when he yanked a five-footer, but as McDowell had double-bogeyed the first after getting a "fried egg" in a greenside bunker he still commanded a three-shot advantage.

McDowell was determined to add some tension and with a 45-footer for a birdie on the third and a 50-footer for an eagle on the sixth he definitely created a stir. Woods, however, was impervious birdieing four out of six holes from the second. Some of his iron shots were out of his top drawer, especially the three-iron he hit from 270 yards to 15 feet on the par-five sixth. Granted, McDowell stole his thunder on that green with his trail-blazer but Woods's two-foot birdie ensured the rumble in the distance was sounding his name.

On the eighth Woods took on the water and plopped it to within five feet. McDowell could merely look on or sigh. Yet in true Irish spirit he growled. But for a three-putt on the 12th and a few other mistakes he would have believed he would have challenged. However, to the observer, there appeared another gear for Woods to reach if necessary and maybe that was so thrilling about his display.

The motion modelled by Sean Foley is fully bedded in and we must take the fitness on trust. He was walking a tad gingerly when he finished, but, having practised at Augusta last Sunday and taken part in a two-day exhibition he had just played eight rounds in a row. There should be few worries on that score.

Alas, Ernie Els, in a tie for fourth alongside another Englishman in Brian Davis, could not achieve the top-two placing he needed to qualify for the Masters and unless he wins in Houston this week, the South African will miss Augusta for the first time in 19 years. Els will want to be there. Indeed, anyone with a golfing soul will want to be in Georgia next week.

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