Watch out: The ‘old’ Tiger is back

ORLANDO, Fla. – What used to seem inevitable now comes as a revelation: Tiger Woods has won a golf tournament.

What used to be so familiar has turned into something refreshing: Tiger Woods emphatically vanquished a field on a Sunday.

And what used to be so rote now comes as a feeling of déjà vu: Tiger Woods is heading to the Masters with a head of steam and a look of triumph.

Tiger Woods kept his emotions in check en route to his seventh win at Bay Hill.
(Getty Images)

Woods turned a precarious one-stroke lead entering Sunday’s final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a five-stroke statement for his first PGA Tour win since the BMW Championship in September 2009. That victory came two months before a minor car accident, at his home only miles from this Bay Hill course, which turned into one of the biggest sports scandals in history. A Pandora’s Box of past philandering and poor behavior opened for the world to see, and Woods’ reputation was permanently besotted. He won six tournaments earlier that year, but in the insular world of the sport he played, there were both whispers and shouts that the imperturbable assassin of Sundays never would be the same.

On this Sunday, he absolutely was.

After making the final putt of the day on 18, Woods doffed his cap, grinned wide and waved to a swell of cheers. In what was the only poignant moment of the late afternoon came as Woods was greeted not by Arnold Palmer – as is customary after this tournament – but by the golf legend’s business manager, Alistair Johnston. Palmer had been taken to a local hospital after a spike in his blood pressure. Johnston hugged Woods and told him the news. Woods nodded. Johnston then told Yahoo! Sports that Palmer “hasn’t been feeling so well for a couple of days,” but was “thrilled” to see Woods’ victory. Later, in a short press conference, Johnston said Palmer would be held overnight and that his condition was improving.

[ Related: Tiger just made the best season in golf much better ]

There was a clear turning point in Woods’ final round – a moment of grave concern. And it came early. On the second green, Woods mishit a 28-foot lag putt and left himself a tricky 5-footer. These were the putts he always used to make in final rounds. Especially on Sunday. Especially on this course on Sunday, where he has won three times on the 72nd green.

He missed. Bogey.

While the gallery and his caddie moved ahead to the next tee, Woods lined up the putt again – without the ball. He stared at the hole for a good five seconds. Then he stormed off. And as he approached the third tee, his eyes were wide and unblinking in shock. He looked spooked.

Here is where the old Tiger would seize control of his emotions and his game. Here is where the new Tiger might spiral. Who would we see on Sunday? The man who came into this event 37-2 when he had the outright lead after 54 holes? Or the man who had lost control of his driver and couldn’t make the clutch putt when a round depended on it?

In that moment, it looked like the old Tiger was long gone.

But on the very next hole, faced with a difficult iron shot over water with a strong wind crossing through the fairway, Woods dropped the ball within five feet of the hole. He made birdie to get that lost shot right back. On his walk to the next tee, he let out a huge breath of air.

He then birdied Nos. 4, 6, and 8 to finish the front nine with a four-shot lead. On the back, the key moment came on the 15th green, when playing partner Graeme McDowell had a birdie putt and Woods had 20 feet just to save par. The four-shot lead could have dropped to two with three holes to play.

But this was the Tiger of old. He watched McDowell leave his putt an inch high and then drained his own, throwing that iconic fist pump as the ball fell.

If Tiger Woods even noticed this stuffed tiger, perched near where his errant drive landed on No. 4, he didn't show it.
(Yahoo! Sports)

By that point it was clear: Tiger was back. At least for a day.

This win is even more impressive considering Woods withdrew from the last tournament he played, at Doral in Miami, with a leg injury. And in the weeks since, he has faced tough questions about former coach Hank Haney’s tell-all book, “The Big Miss,” which painted the golfer as rude, cheap, cold and reckless with his rehab from recurring knee injuries.

But much like a superstar from another generation, Michael Jordan, Woods is at his best when he feels slighted. And he was publicly slighted in “The Big Miss” in a way he never had been slighted before. Haney ripped Woods as a golfer, friend and husband. Woods, when asked about the book in a recent press conference, almost looked ready to choke up with anger.

But on Sunday, he was laser-focused, unwilling to let anyone topple him. When the gallery broke up with laughter on the fourth hole after an errant approach dribbled to within inches of a stuffed tiger on the ropeline, Tiger the golfer barely noticed. He recovered with a near-perfect chip and made a 12-foot birdie putt to widen his lead. He never looked back from that moment, slowly squelching the hope out of the field with every made putt and saved par. McDowell never got within three strokes of the lead. And no one else was within sniffing distance.

[ Related: Bubba Watson gets the bounce of a lifetime on 18 at Bay Hill ]

It might be a turning point for Woods – the month the anti-Tiger venom reached another crescendo with a vicious book, and this week he finally wrote an on-course rebuttal of his own. He played as if aware this is a course where he has always been great. He played as if he knew the big test – Augusta National – is just two weeks away. Woods rarely spoke throughout Sunday’s final round to anyone and showed little emotion. The fairway rage from years past was gone. But he wasn’t ebullient.

At least for this one Sunday, Tiger was squarely in between. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right. Just Tiger. And just the way he used to be.

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Award-winning writer Eric Adelson is a feature writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Eric a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 25, 2012