ORLANDO, Fla. — The birdie putt to win at Bay Hill was vintage Tiger Woods.
Not so typical was the reaction.
He backpedaled as the ball rolled toward the hole, and when he saw it fall, Woods turned and slammed his cap to the ground. It gave him a one-shot victory over Bart Bryant, his fifth victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I saw the highlights that night, and I didn’t know I went that crazy,” Woods said Wednesday. “But evidently, I did.”
Woods could use a few moments like that.
The Masters is three weeks away, and the status of Woods’ game remains somewhat of a mystery. He has played only six competitive rounds at two tournaments since reconstructive knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open last June.
Woods was reminded of how long he has been away when he arrived early Wednesday for his pro-am round. It was his first time playing a pro-am since Bay Hill last year. The Masters, U.S. Open and two World Golf Championships — the only tournaments he has played since last year — don’t have them.
He was surprised how quickly his game has returned, even if the results aren’t evident. He lost in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship and tied for ninth two weeks ago in the CA Championship at Doral.
“I think it’s taken less time to get my feel back for my game,” Woods said. “I thought it would take a little bit longer.
“The question mark to me was how many rounds could I play? How much golf could I play? That’s probably been the greatest positive is I’ve been able to recover from day-to-day and not feel a thing.”
The negative — especially at Doral — has been the putting.
Woods ranked 74th out of the 79 players who finished at Doral in putts per round. Then he played in the Tavistock Cup, an exhibition at Lake Nona, and didn’t make much there, either.
What’s peculiar about his victory last year was that the hat-slamming celebration had more to do with a full swing.
Woods still remembers every detail about the 18th hole, playing in the final group with Bryant already in with a 9-under-par, 271 total. The wind was helping from the left when he hit his tee shot, and with a hole location back and to the right, it’s a fairly simple shot.
“When we were walking up the hill, it totally switched. It came in off the right,” Woods said.
If he got his shot up in the air, the wind could drop it into the water. If he tried to ride the wind, the ball could land in the back bunker. So he settled on a shot that separates him from the rest of the field — a five-iron from 161 yards to 25 feet.
“I just chipped a little five-iron in there, and it felt sweet to hit that little shot, just a little bit left of the hole, right around one of the signs that we had picked out (as a target). And I left myself a putt at it.”
Would he have slammed his hat if the shot had required a simple eight-iron?
“No,” Woods said with a smile.