Tiger Woods was not about to let a little rain and wind blow him off course, clinching golf's world No. 1 spot with a win at Bay Hill after Mother Nature momentarily halted his weekend charge.
Woods, who matched Sam Snead for the most wins at any PGA Tour event with victory No. 8 in the weather-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational, had a few hiccups on his way to a final-round 2-under 70. As in days of yore, however, when Woods was at his dominating best, Tiger’s chasers were playing for second place.
"I play well here. That’s as simple as it gets," Woods told Golf Channel after putting the finishing touches on a 13-under, two-shot victory over Justin Rose at Bay Hill -- his second straight tour win after his victory at Doral two weeks ago, and his third in five 2013 events.
"It was a byproduct of hard work, patience, and getting back to winning golf tournaments," he said after overtaking Rory McIlroy in the world golf rankings. "I’ve won some golf tournaments in the last couple of years and, consequently, I’ve move up."
It was a long climb back for Woods from the depths of personal and professional woes that saw him lose his top spot in late 2010 after he had held it for a record 281 consecutive weeks.
Woods fell as low as 58th in the world, but with six wins in his last 20 tour starts, his 30 percent winning percentage eclipses his career victory clip of 27 percent. Woods, as he has done for months, credited his improving fitness for getting him back to the top.
"If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level...where I’m contending in every event...in major championships," he told reporters. "Once I got [healthy], then my game turned."
Some observers may be unwilling to proclaim Woods "back" until he wins his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open, but Tiger pooh-poohed the notion.
"That’s their opinion," he said. "I’m very pleased with the way I’m playing, and enough of that."
NBC’s Johnny Miller is one analyst who believes next month’s Masters will provide a crucial test for Woods. Still, the outspoken broadcaster was convinced that Tiger was back to his invincible, dominant self.
"More than beginning," Miller said about whether Woods was starting to intimidate the field as he did in his heyday. "It’s here and doubled up, especially since McIlroy is not doing anything and Snedeker...got injured....Tiger is doing what he normally does."
As for Monday’s Bay Hill finale, it was all Woods, with Keegan Bradley putting on a brief run to start the day and Justin Rose trying to catch him at the end. They eventually faltered, with playing partner Rickie Fowler’s late collapse reminiscent of the final round of last year’s Memorial Tournament when, paired with Woods, he shot an 84.
For much of the final round, Fowler offered the only real threat to Woods’ victory march. The 24-year-old Golf Boys member dressed in neon orange gave his red-and-black-clad opponent his best shot early but it got so ugly later that all Fowler could do was bite his arm in frustration.
After Woods bogeyed the eighth -- one of three on the day -- Fowler came back with a birdie on the par-4 ninth. But each time the one-time tour winner got within hailing distance, Woods waved bye-bye.
Like on No. 12, when Fowler rolled in a lengthy birdie putt to pull within two, Woods jammed his own 26-footer in on top of his competitor’s.
"It ended up being a nice putt to make but...I was just trying to make sure I didn’t run it past the hole," Woods said.
When Woods’ approach shot came up short in a green-side bunker on the 15th, Fowler missed the green to the left, with his ball settling down in the cuff between fairway and rough.
Fowler blew his chip shot past the hole and missed his par putt, though Woods missed his 11-footer for par as well. But what looked like a possible two-shot swing in Fowler’s favor remained Woods, 2-up, with three to play.
Then Fowler’s world caved in. With Woods’ drive finding the same fairway bunker on 16 from which he made bogey on Friday, it was advantage-Fowler, who was in the center of the fairway, just 179 yards out. He looked concerned, and with good reason, as he tracked the lofty flight of his ball, which splashed into the water hazard fronting the green.
A vintage Woods 8-iron shot followed, as Tiger picked the ball clean and watched it settle on the green above the hole. Fowler then made a double-dunk when he hit an 80-yard wedge shot fat and rinsed another ball.
Birdie for Woods, triple-bogey eight for Fowler. Game. Set. Match.
The tourney host, who stars with Woods in a new commercial for EA Sports’ PGA Tour 14 video game, was mightily impressed by Woods’ feat.
"I didn’t, actually. I’m surprised that Tiger’s doing it," Palmer told Golf Channel’s Steve Sands about whether he believed anyone would match Snead’s record. "I don’t really see anybody touching it for a long time."
Knowing how difficult it was to win the same tourney five times, which the King did during his career, Palmer could not get over what Woods, who was finishing up his triumph, was about to accomplish.
"To think if Tiger wins today, which it looks like he’s going to, it’s going to be eight times," Arnie said. "It’s going to be a miracle."
And for those who’ll take on Woods in Augusta, the 14-time major champion had a status report on his game that may give everyone else in the field pause.
"I’m getting there," he said. "My game’s consistent, it’s at a high level."