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Sunday, March 25, 2012
Say hello to the new Tiger Woods

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- The tournament host was not here to witness the ending, the formality that was Tiger Woods celebrating on the 18th green, a victory that is bigger than the game's biggest attraction will ever acknowledge.

Arnold Palmer took ill Sunday afternoon, a blood pressure issue sending him to the hospital and denying him a chance to watch Woods put the finishing touches on a most important win and then acknowledge the hard work with a firm handshake and hearty hug.

Palmer, 82, who was being kept overnight for observation, played with more bravado and panache in his day than Woods does, but he nonetheless has always loved it when Tiger wins his tournament. Who wouldn't? This victory was Woods' seventh at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and who is to say it wasn't the biggest?

Like the King himself, fans revel in watching Woods win -- and were enjoying every bit of his first victory on the PGA Tour in 923 days, back to his triumph at the 2009 BMW Championship, where Woods won for the sixth time that year and seemed on top of the golf world.

So much has transpired since then, so much negativity and personal turmoil and upheaval and injury, that many wondered if this day would ever come. Woods won for the 72nd time in his PGA Tour career with a hard-fought, final-round 70 at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, where he took a 1-stroke lead into the final round over Graeme McDowell and won by 5.

"I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback," McDowell said. "Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best, winning golf tournaments."

Even other players like to see Woods succeed. Make no mistake, McDowell -- the 2010 U.S. Open champion -- did all he could to win the tournament. After a double-bogey start, he fought back with a birdie at the third hole and a 50-foot eagle putt at the sixth. Another birdie at the 11th kept the heat on. But Woods never let it get closer than 3 strokes.

All the while, he had to hear the support from the gallery, which was jam-packed and primed to witness Woods' return to winning ways.

"Welcome back, Tiger!"

"Trophy time!"

"It's a new day!"

"Bring it home!"

By the time fans were allowed to funnel in behind Woods and McDowell as they played the 18th, it would have taken a monumental blunder to blow it, although Woods kept his head down and his emotions in check until he knocked the final approach over the water and onto the green.

Only then did he let out a form of satisfaction to caddie Joe LaCava.

"Effin yeah," is what LaCava reported Woods said to him. "He said all the hard work has paid off."

LaCava sent a jolt through the caddie ranks when he left promising young player Dustin Johnson last September to go to work for Woods, who had missed most of the summer with injuries and came back with two poor performances.

But a lot of strides have been made in the ensuing six months, strides that LaCava expected.

"He's Tiger Woods," LaCava said. "Anyone in their right mind would take the job."

LaCava has been along for a wild ride. A third-place finish at the Australian Open, followed by a solid Presidents Cup and then a victory at the Chevron World Challenge -- one that meant a great deal to Woods, even though it was unofficial.

Then came the tie for third in Abu Dhabi, followed by a horrible putting performance at Pebble Beach, a second-round exit at the Match Play, a final-round 62 at the Honda to finish tied for second, a WD due to Achilles problems at Doral and now, finally, his first official victory since that night just a few miles from here that changed his life.

"One win doesn't mean you're back, back," LaCava said. "He beat the field by 5 and played great obviously. Is he back? I'd say yes, he's back. Who knows what he is going to do down the road, win 10 tournaments, whatever. I think those days … it's pretty hard with the depth on tour. But he's definitely back."

Which, of course, leads to talk about the old days. Is it even fair to judge Woods by his past, to expect that level of greatness?

LaCava said "he thinks he's going to win every tournament," which has been the Woods mantra from day one.

The new Woods might not ever dominate like he did just a few years ago, but what athlete at age 36 is ever expected to play his sport with the same rate of success achieved a decade earlier?

"I think people have to stop comparing him to past days," said Hunter Mahan after playing with Woods during the first two rounds. "People have to look at it from now and look at him almost as if he's a new golfer. … All the tools are sharp and getting better than they used to be."

And yet, Woods is hitting it farther and straighter. He led the field in greens hit in regulation at Bay Hill with 57-of-72. His misses, in general, are far more manageable. His round of 70 was bettered by just two scores, both 68s shot earlier in the day.

Those in the chase could not break par. McDowell shot 74, as did Ian Poulter. Ernie Els shot 75.

"Tomorrow is another day," said Woods' coach, Sean Foley. "We have a long way to go. And he knows that. But I'm pleased for him. That was a tough day out there. He's put in the work and will continue to do so."

This sets up what should be a hype-filled prelude to the Masters that begins on April 5. Woods, who moved to No. 6 in the world, will be considered a pre-tournament favorite at a place where he has won four times and has not finished worse than sixth since his last victory at Augusta National in 2005.

Then you've got Rory McIlroy, who briefly moved to No. 1 before Luke Donald regained the top spot with a victory at the Transitions Championship. Phil Mickelson, who won at Pebble Beach and was second at Riviera, is gearing up for another run at a green jacket. The year's first major will be jam-packed with azaleas and storylines.

Woods was always going to be part of that discussion, but his first official victory in 28 months undoubtedly ratchets up the level of excitement. If nothing else, it puts to rest the talk and conjecture about when he'd win again, official or otherwise.

"The man was on a mission," LaCava said. "He's pretty jacked. He probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow."

Each of Woods' four Masters victories was preceded by a victory earlier in the season, so this is a good sign. Woods called it "pure joy," but would barely let on it was more meaningful because of all that has happened since his last win.

"Well, it's not like winning a major championship or anything," he said. "But it certainly feels real good."

Woods was unable to receive the tournament trophy from Palmer, who was said to be annoyed that he had to leave, annoyed that he would have to spend the night in the hospital.

Here's a guess that Arnie will catch up with Tiger at Augusta National, where Palmer will stripe the ceremonial first tee shot with his usual gusto, and Woods will again be the center of attention.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.