Last week, at the onset of spring, Tiger Woods returned to the city of his greatest contradictions. Orlando is where his children were born and his marriage fell apart, where he was lampooned for personal failings and hailed as arguably the greatest golfer who ever lived. Now Orlando may also be remembered as the place of his golfing resurrection.
The Bay Hill Club & Lodge, host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, has radiated constant sunshine in Woods's life. A picture of a young Woods standing between Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hangs in the clubhouse dining room. Twenty-one years ago, Woods won the first of his three U.S. Junior Amateurs at Bay Hill. He had won six times as a pro there. The grounds echo with the roars from his renderings, winning birdie putts on the 18th green, jokes with Palmer in the gloaming.
Last week Bay Hill presented Woods a more lasting opportunity: a passage from personal darkness. At 36, Woods is no longer the indomitable face of the sports world. He is a divorcé with two young children, a golfer with balky body parts competing against younger men and his younger self. His once familiar inner circle has vanished or moved on. His father died, his mother is less visible than in earlier years. Two caddies hired and fired. Two swing coaches come and gone, one of them (Butch Harmon) now working with Phil Mickelson, the other (Hank Haney) writing a tell-all book about his relationship with his former pupil.
Woods has soldiered on through the noise and the silence, believing better days were ahead, that Nicklaus's record of 18 majors remained within reach.
Last Saturday night, less than 24 hours before he won on the PGA Tour for the first time in 30 months, Woods was the only golfer on the Bay Hill range. He was the 54-hole leader, a shot clear of Graeme McDowell, but his third round had ended badly, with a bogey at the 14th and a double bogey on number 15 after a snap hook out-of-bounds. The round over, Woods had more work to do. His caddie, Joe LaCava, met him on the range, as did Sean Foley, Woods's swing coach since the summer of 2010. Foley watched Woods from behind and the side, reminding him not to set up with too much weight on his left foot.
"A lot of players do that in the wind to keep [the ball] down and take loft off [the club]," Foley says. "When he gets too much on his left side, the shaft gets too steep."
Woods hit balls until dark, stopping only to change clubs and sip on a Diet Coke. The more balls he hit, the more the fog from the late-round mistakes lifted.
LaCava studied his man. Then he called his wife. "This guy is very calm," LaCava told her. "It's almost as if he knows he's going to win tomorrow."
For Woods to end a PGA Tour victory drought that had reached 923 days, he had to overcome a strong field and the sentiment that he was no longer a Sunday dominator. In January, he had lost the 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi. In February, Mickelson thumped him by 11 shots while playing in the same group to win at Pebble Beach.
Woods's most immediate threat on Sunday at Bay Hill was McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion and one of several players to rise to prominence in the wake of Woods's scandal in November '09. As Woods tried to regain his form despite injury and inactivity, McDowell maintained a healthy respect for Woods while also relishing the opportunity to beat him. In December '10, Woods led McDowell by four shots in Woods's limited-field Chevron World Challenge before McDowell stole the event with a couple of birdie bombs, at the 72nd hole and on the first hole of the playoff.