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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Woods waltzes to 76th PGA Tour win

By Kevin Maguire
ESPN.com

It simply felt different.

On Sunday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Tiger Woods was all business en route to his 76th PGA Tour victory, a 2-shot win over Steve Stricker.

Even though he finished bogey-par-bogey for a 1-under-par 71, it was only that close because Woods played by the old mantra of "you only have to win by a shot to win."

There's no PGA Tour stat that measures confidence, but if there was, Woods would be No. 1 in that category this season. Certainly his putting looked tops this week at Doral, sinking all manner of birdie putts as well as crucial par saves.

When major winners like Graeme McDowell and Phil Mickelson were challenging, Woods didn't back down. He matched birdies with birdies, not letting anyone in the field think they had a shot.

So how did Tiger notch his 17th career World Golf Championship event win?

When we knew No. 76 was in the bag: No, it wasn't on the first tee, even though Woods' record with leads of at least 3 shots or more after three rounds coming in to Sunday was a pristine 16-for-16. Make that 17-for-17 now.

We knew early on that Woods would capture his seventh victory in this event when he stretched his 54-hole advantage by one to 5 strokes after McDowell bogeyed the par-4 fifth hole. And as the leaders approached the turn Sunday, Woods' lead bounced between 4 and 5 shots most of the inward nine until he made his first bogey of the day on the drivable par-4 16th. After playing conservatively by going with an iron, his tee shot found a fairway bunker and he failed to make par for the first time, dropping his lead on Stricker to just 3 shots.

Making a run: Much like a good college basketball game, the best golfers in the world weren't going to let Woods win without a challenge. Some opened fast as both McDowell and Mickelson started birdie-birdie to trim Woods' lead back to 3 shots. But Tiger took it into red numbers with birdies of his own at the second and fourth holes to earn some breathing room. Despite a Stricker back-nine run that included a chip-in birdie at the long par-3 13th, Woods' lead never truly wavered.

Masters implications: With the year's first major a month away, could Tiger slip on his first green jacket since 2005? It's been nearly eight years since Woods triumphed at Augusta National -- and almost five years since he won a major anywhere -- but if the putter stays hot like at Doral and not chilly as in the week prior at the Honda Classic, Woods will be the overwhelming favorite come Masters week.

If we use history as a guide, during his 16 full PGA Tour seasons, Woods won multiple tournaments on seven occasions prior to that year's Masters. If that's not stunning enough, in six of those seven seasons, he went on to win at least one major that year. There's no guarantee he'll do it again, but 2013 appears to be setting up to end his major drought.

A new No. 1?: No, Tiger didn't jump to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings with his victory, but he did make a huge leap in an effort to unseat current top dog Rory McIlroy. Prior to Doral, Woods was 2.6134 points behind the Northern Irishman. After his win, Woods trimmed that margin to just over one point. At the start of 2013, McIlroy seemed like a lock to stay No. 1 most, if not all, of the year. After the 23-year-old's struggles early this season and two Woods victories, we could have a new No. 1 in a matter of weeks, not months.

Chasing Snead: It's not as well-known as Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships, but Sam Snead's all-time PGA Tour mark of 82 victories sits within Woods' sights. After Tiger's win at Doral, he is six wins behind Snead's record. To compare, Tiger celebrated his 37th birthday in December, while Snead's 76th victory came at the 1957 Palm Beach Round Robin when he had just turned 45.

Tiger sighting: So when will we see Tiger next? He's slated to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill from March 21-24. That will likely be his final PGA Tour event until the year's first major tees off on April 11 at Augusta National.