The God's Given Lionel Messi - messilegend

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Unbelievable Tiger Woods

The bigger the stage, the better Woods is

ORLANDO - Even Arnold Palmer was left in awe of what had unfolded before his eyes in the fading light at Bay Hill.

"It's happened every time," The King said, smiling and shaking his head.
Golfers aren't supposed to be superheroes following theatrically implausible storylines contrived by Hollywood script doctors — too much can go wrong in this confounded sport — but how else to explain Tiger Woods?

When does he not rise to the occasion? The grander the stage, the greater he becomes.
"I don't think I've ever seen him make a putt when he really needed it," deadpanned Zach Johnson, who finished third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, "And that was the epitome of sarcasm."

With one perfect roll, in a scene backlit by flashing bulbs, and, as ever, with everything on the line, Woods' 16-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole found the bottom of the cup to give him a stirring one-shot victory for his record-extending sixth title at Bay Hill.

"That putt was never missing," said caddie Steve Williams, who embraced Woods as he did last year on the same green in wild celebration.

But this victory was arguably one of greater significance given Woods spent eight months away from golf after major reconstructive knee surgery following last June's U.S. Open triumph at Torrey Pines.

It will serve both to quiet the chattering classes who questioned whether he could return to his glory and as a warning shot across the bow of the pretenders to his throne with the Masters scheduled to begin April 9. It also means that even if Phil Mickelson wins next weekend at the Shell Houston Open, he can't wrest the world No. 1 ranking away from Woods.

"I hadn't been in the mix since the U.S. Open, so it was neat to be in contention again, to feel the heat on the back nine, and then obviously the big bonus is to win a golf tournament," Woods said of his 66th win — and 19th in which he came from behind — on Tour.

"It's always nice to win a tournament pre-Augusta."

And the hotter it got with the tournament on the line, the more elevated Woods became, crafting this victory with courage and clutch par putts more than with superior ball-striking. Indeed, after hitting the ball impressively at the CA Championship at Doral — where his putter was uncooperative — two weeks ago, Woods finished only 50th in both fairways hit and greens in regulation here. But, of course, he led the field in putting.

"As I look back at my three tournaments I've played this year, I've gotten better at each one," he said, "And that was the whole idea was to keep progressing to Augusta."

What he rediscovered at Bay Hill was his almost supernatural ability to get the ball in the hole in the fewest shots from the most unlikely places. If his ball-striking improves and he scrambles like this at the Masters, he will be the deserved favorite for a fifth green jacket. "It does give me a lot of confidence going to Augusta because it's a validation of all the things I've been working on," Woods said.

Of course Woods won here because he got some help from Sean O'Hair, who held a five-stroke lead going into the final round.

But the young O'Hair, who has never finished the job with the 54-hole lead, stumbled at inopportune times. After three rounds in which he conducted a ball-striking clinic, in the heat of battle alongside Woods he was suddenly unable to find fairways.

"If you're in the rough all day, you're going to struggle to hit greens," he said of his final round three-over-par 73, six shots worse than Woods' 67.

"I didn't give myself enough birdie opportunities out there."

O'Hair bristled when asked whether he was in some way in awe of Woods.

"It's not like it's The Tiger Show and I'm just out there to watch him," he said, "We're trying to win golf tournaments and he just happens to be that good."

Woods started the day ominously, making birdie after majestic shots into the second and third holes to cut the deficit to two strokes after O'Hair bogeyed the third. O'Hair scrambled to hold his lead into the back nine but Woods finally caught him at five under par on the 15th hole courtesy of holing a long birdie putt.

The turning point, however, should have been on the brutally long par-4 16th. With Woods buried in the rough with no chance to get to the water-guarded green, O'Hair from the fairway didn't carry the ball far enough and saw it fall into the water. Woods hacked out to 101 yards and hit a gorgeous pitching wedge which resulted in a three-footer for par which he made.

O'Hair's bogey put him one back but Woods gave him an opening when he plugged into the lip of the front bunker at the long par-3 17th and could only make bogey, tying them again.

All it did was set the stage for the final hole, a natural amphitheater.

When Woods stalked his putt, a spectator yelled out, "Playoff!" Indeed, the Tour had made plans for the first playoff hole to begin at 10 a.m. Monday.

"I thought, 'Nah,'" said Woods.


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