For the first time since October of 2010, Tiger Woods is the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. The game's biggest star began the week at Bay Hill needing a win to overtake Rory McIlroy in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he delivered on Monday afternoon to win his eighth career Arnold Palmer Invitational. The victory matches Sam Snead's record for the most ever wins at a single event, and cements Tiger's status as the best player in the world heading into The Masters in two weeks.
Tiger has carved the path back to No. 1 with six wins in the past two years -- all on tracks that have treated him well throughout his career. The win at Bay Hill was his third in five PGA Tour appearances this year, with the other two coming at courses he's dominated for the past two decades -- Torrey Pines and Doral.
While Tiger spent all Monday with a multi-shot cushion, the win at Bay Hill was more of a grind than the tidy domination at Doral. Woods struggled all week off the tee, entering Monday 75th in driving accuracy. He was also in the middle of the pack in greens in regulation, and his scrambling stats were average. But much like his week at Doral, Woods was unconscious with the putter in his hand, consistently draining medium-length putts for birdies or clutch par saves.
The putter was the club that clinched the two-shot win on Monday, particularly coming into the clubhouse with Rickie Fowler applying pressure. The highlight came on back-to-back putts on the 11th and 12th greens. On the 11th, he left a lag putt well short, but stepped up to bend his par putt into the left side of the cup and keep Fowler at a distance. There were more fireworks on the 12th green when Woods poured in a 26-foot birdie putt just a minute after Fowler hit an even longer birdie putt to tighten things.
The prompt response likely sewed things up, but Fowler did not go away and cut the lead back down to two with another long birdie on No. 14. The six-hole stretch for Rickie was impressive, as he had folded with ugly showings in previous rounds playing next to Tiger -- most notably last year at The Memorial. At the start of Sunday, Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee assessed Tiger's multi-shot lead and issued the following about the best closer in the history of the game: "You're talking about golf's most predictable, golf's most animated man. And he's on the verge of doing to this generation's psyche what he did to the previous generation's psyche."
It looked like this final round would be another walk, with the competition falling off all around him.
But unlike Torrey and Doral, Fowler was hanging tough with Woods and not allowing for a casual Monday stroll into the house. And then it all came undone on the 16th, as Rickie dumped two balls in the water hazard in front of the green. He was struggling with the distance on his approach shot, telling his caddie that he needed a little help from the wind. In the end, the wind probably didn't matter as he caught it a little fat and left it short in the drink. It became academic from there when Fowler backed that up by putting his drop shot in the water again.
Woods would go on to safely clean up the final two holes and clinch yet another win at Arnie's place. More important than the win was the No. 1 ranking on the line, which Tiger addressed throughout the week. It was right in front of him, and he knew a win, as opposed to some complicated series of dominoes, would simply clinch it for him. "I knew it was going to be a long road back. I fell out of the top 50 there for a little bit," he said. "I'm headed in the right direction, so that's something I'm proud of. I'm excited about where my game is headed, really excited about what the future holds."
Right now, the future is The Masters in two weeks, where he was already a heavy favorite. With the No. 1 ranking drought now over, given his form through the first three months of the season, the majors drought should be the next one to end.