ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The moment was vintage Tiger Woods, and so was his reaction.
Seconds after Rickie Fowler made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole to pull within two shots of the lead, Woods posed over his 25-foot birdie putt until he swept the putter upward in his left hand and marched toward the cup as it dropped for a birdie.
Fowler, standing on the edge of the green, turned with a slight smile as if to say, “What else can I do?”
Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Monday and returned to No. 1 in the world for the first time since October 2010, the longest spell of his career. After all that time, after so much turmoil with his personal life and his health, Woods looks as good as ever.
“It’s a byproduct of hard work, patience and getting back to winning golf tournaments,” Woods said.
He essentially wrapped up his eighth title at Bay Hill with an 8-iron out of a fairway bunker on the par-5 16th that easily cleared the water and landed safely on the green for a two-putt birdie. Woods dangled his tongue out of his mouth as the ball was in the air, another sign of his swagger.
Just like his other two wins this year, Woods never let anyone get closer than two shots in the final round. With a conservative bogey he could afford on the final hole, he closed with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot win over Justin Rose.
Woods walked off the 18th green waving his putter over his head — truly a magic wand at Bay Hill — to acknowledge the fans who have seen this act before. His eighth win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied a PGA Tour record that had not been touched in 48 years.
This win had extra significance. He’s back to No. 1.
“If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” Woods said. “I know I can be where I’m contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day in and day out — if I got healthy. That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned.”
A year ago, he came to Bay Hill without having won in more than 2½ years. He left this year having won six times in his last 20 starts on the PGA Tour.
Next up is the Masters, where Woods will try to end his five-year drought in the majors.
“I’m really excited about the rest of this year,” Woods said.
Woods fell as low as No. 58 in the world as he coped with the collapse of his marriage, a loss of sponsors and injuries to his left leg. One week after he announced he was dating Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, Woods returned to the top of golf.
“Number 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!” Vonn tweeted moments after his win.
Asked if there was any correlation to his winning right after going public with his relationship, Woods smiled and said, “You’re reading way too much into this.”
Like so many other victories, this one was never really close.
Fowler pulled to within two shots with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole, but after he and Woods made bogey on the 15th, Fowler went at the flag on the par-5 16th and came up a few yards short and into the water. Fowler put another ball into the water and made triple bogey.
“I was swinging it well. I made a few putts, and trying to put a little pressure on them, let them know I was there,” Fowler said. “Just would like to have that 7-iron back on 16. Just kind of a touch heavy.”
Woods played it safe on the 18th, and nearly holed a 75-foot par putt that even drew a big smile from the tournament host.
Woods tied the tour record of eight wins in a single tournament. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times from 1938 to 1965 at two golf courses. Woods tied his record for most wins at a single golf course, having also won eight times at Torrey Pines, including a U.S. Open.
“I don’t really see anybody touching it for a long time,” Palmer said while Woods made his way up the 18th fairway. “I had the opportunity to win a tournament five times, and I knew how difficult that was.”
Rose, who played the first two rounds with Woods, closed with a 70 to finish alone in second.
He pulled to within two shots of Woods with a birdie on the 16th. Woods was in the group behind him in the fairway bunker on the par 5, and hit 8-iron over the water and onto the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie to restore his margin.
“He plays every shot like he plays them on Sunday,” Rose said. “His intensity is the same on Thursday often as it is on Sunday, and that makes Sunday a lot less different for him. He plays in that kind of atmosphere far more regularly than a lot of guys do, and it’s an adjustment for most of us. It’s a known for him.”
Fowler had to settle for a 73 and a tie for third with Mark Wilson (71), Keegan Bradley (71) and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (72).
Rory McIlroy had been No. 1 since he won the PGA Championship last August. He can reclaim the No. 1 ranking by winning the Houston Open this week. Woods heads home to south Florida for two weeks before the Masters.
Asked the last time he felt this good going to Augusta National, Woods replied, “It’s been a few years.”
This was the fourth time in his career that he already had three PGA Tour wins before the Masters — he didn’t win a green jacket in any of the previous years (2000, 2003 and 2008). More telling, perhaps, is that Woods has won back-to-back starts for the first time since the Buick Open and Bridgestone Invitational in August 2009.
“I think it shows that my game is consistent,” he said. “It’s at a high level.”
Woods finished at 13-under 275 and won for the 77th time on the PGA Tour, moving to within five of Snead’s record.
Fowler, his first time playing with Woods in the final group, opened with eight pars when he needed to be making up ground. And when he finally had a few openings on the back nine, Woods refused to let him through.
Woods salvaged a two-putt par with a 7-footer on the 11th hole to keep a three-shot lead. On the next hole, Fowler looked to gain some momentum when he made a 40-foot birdie putt only for Woods to match him with that 25-foot birdie.
Woods produced some absurd statistics with the putter this week, making 19 of 28 putts from between 7 feet and 20 feet.
He walked off the green to share a handshake with Palmer, along with a big smile and some words that Woods said were best kept private. He left the course in that familiar blue blazer that goes to the winner.
And he left as the No. 1 player in the world.
It’s the 11th time that Woods has gone back to No. 1, tied with Greg Norman since the ranking began in 1986. Still to be determined is how long Woods stays there this time.
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