SI Vault
April 02, 2012
Tiger Woods won his first Tour event in 30 months, dominating as he did in his prime and signaling that he may be the man to beat at the Masters
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April 02, 2012

Red Storm Rising

Tiger Woods won his first Tour event in 30 months, dominating as he did in his prime and signaling that he may be the man to beat at the Masters

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At Bay Hill, McDowell looked forward to the prospect of another fight. "He's simply another guy who I have to go and try to beat," McDowell said on the eve of the final round. On Sunday, McDowell took a spot on the range only two stalls away from Woods, a challenger announcing himself in the ring.

But McDowell started the final round with a thud, making a double bogey from the fairway at the 1st to Woods's par to fall three back. McDowell did throw some haymakers—most notably a 51-footer for eagle at the 6th—but Woods countered with four birdies against two bogeys, swinging with power and precision.

He belted drivers, fairway metals and irons off the tee, shaped his low stinger in both directions and putted with confidence. At times LaCava would say "right leg" as he and Woods stood on a tee box, reminding Woods to load onto his right side and explode as Foley had discussed on the range on Saturday night. Woods swung, twirled his clubs and tossed away broken tees. It was the Tiger of 2000, an old song back in rotation.

The better Woods played, the more animated the gallery became, sprinting from tee boxes to greens and shouting to Woods. Bring the pain, Tiger. Green jacket, Tiger. Welcome back, Tiger.

Cellphones went off, fans sneaked under the ropes for a closer peek at Woods, only to get waved back by police and marshals.

Two weeks after he walked off Doral in the middle of the final round with a strained left Achilles tendon, Woods put a stranglehold on a tournament once again. In U.S. Open--like conditions, he was the only player in the last eight pairings to break par. He beat McDowell by five shots, won his seventh Arnold Palmer Invitational and his 72nd PGA Tour event.

"Pure joy," said Woods.

Said LaCava, "Even a guy like that still needs to win to have confidence. He's definitely back. He thinks he's going to win every tournament. He probably wishes the Masters started tomorrow."

Even against a deep and talented field—with Mickelson, McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, among others—Woods's road to get from 14 to 18 majors suddenly doesn't look as long. With good health and comfort in his swing, he has rediscovered his accuracy and distance. He peppered the fairways and greens at Bay Hill and feasted on the long holes, making birdie on 12 of the 16 par-5s. He ranked fourth in putting.

Still, Foley says, Woods is only halfway to making swings without having to verbalize what he's trying to do, the difference between going from "consciously competent to unconsciously competent."

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