By DOUG FERGUSON
ORLANDO, Fla. — Life must be going well for Tiger Woods when he can make headlines in the gossip pages for dating Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn and in the sports pages for winning Bay Hill and returning to No. 1 in the world.
All in the same week.
The studio photos of Woods and Vonn that were posted on their Facebook pages looked more suitable for a catalog showcasing their clothing sponsors. Far more natural were the poses Woods struck Monday afternoon with Arnold Palmer after winning his tournament — left arm draped around Palmer’s shoulder, both unable to contain their laughter over whatever was said that could not be repeated.
“But it was funny,” Woods said, breaking into a broad grin as he replayed the exchange in his mind. “Really funny, actually.”
Yes, Woods appears to be in a happy place.
Winning does that, and Woods is starting to win with alarming frequency. In the one year and two weeks since he limped off the course at Doral with tightness in his left Achilles tendon — the same injury that forced him to miss two majors in 2011 — Woods has won six times in his last 20 starts on the PGA Tour. In his three wins this year, no one got closer than two shots at any point in the final round.
The limp has been replaced by a swagger.
“He looks a lot more comfortable out there. He doesn’t really miss many shots. And if he does, it’s not by a whole lot,” said Rickie Fowler, who played with Woods in the final group and has seen plenty of him at practice at The Medalist in South Florida, where both are members.
“You know when another guy is playing well and he’s on top of his game,” Fowler added. “He’s got a little something.”
Haven’t we heard this before?
Remember, Woods won Bay Hill a year ago and was declared the favorite to win a fifth green jacket at the Masters. Instead, he never broke par and wound up with his highest score as a pro at Augusta National and tied for 40th. He won the Memorial in his final event before the U.S. Open, and then shared the 36-hole lead at Olympic Club. He failed to finish in the top 20.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype because we know how good he was and believe he can be that good — if not better — again.
This latest win at Bay Hill, however, was different. It gave Woods consecutive wins for the first time since August 2009. Asked the last time he felt this good going into the Masters, he said, “It’s been a few years.”
“I think it shows that my game is consistent,” Woods said. “It’s at a high level.”
Woods lost part of his mystique when he stopped making putts. Now he seems to make everything. Fowler learned that on the 12th hole Monday after making a 40-foot birdie putt to get within two shots of Woods, only to stand on the edge of the green and watch Woods match it with a 25-footer of his own.
The last time Woods won back-to-back tournaments heading into Augusta was in 2001, the year he won the Masters to complete his unprecedented sweep of the majors. Winning cannot be overstated, even for a guy who has won more than anyone in PGA Tour history except for Sam Snead.
Woods walked into his winner’s press conference with his cellphone in hand, scrolling down to read the messages, most of them from his staff. Rory McIlroy, whom he replaced at No. 1 in the world, sent him a text Tuesday morning.
Vonn shared her thoughts on Twitter: “Number 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!”
It wasn’t long before Woods was asked the correlation between going public about dating Vonn and winning a tournament to go back to No. 1 for the first time since October 2010. There was a time when Woods answered questions about his personal life by saying, “That’s none of your business.” But he had fun with this one.
“You’re reading way too much into this,” he said with a grin.
The trouble with Woods is that he has never been an open book. Only he knows how badly his leg was injured. Only he knows how far along he was in the latest swing change under Sean Foley. Only he knows how much life as a divorced father of two has affected his game.
The greatest temptation Woods faces now is to resist wagging his finger at anyone who doubted whether he could get back to No. 1 in the world, whether he could challenge Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 majors. Woods has been stuck on 14 majors since 2008.
The majors will be the ultimate measures. The Masters starts April 11, and if Woods isn’t wearing a green jacket in Butler Cabin on Sunday night, it won’t mean this was another false alarm. Golf is still hard. Woods only has a way of making it look easy.
Think back to one of the most dominant phases of his career. From August 1999 through March 2000, Woods won or finished second 10 times in 11 starts on the PGA Tour. The Masters was his next tournament, and it didn’t look like there was any way he could lose. In the opening round, he three-putted for double bogey on No. 10 and three-putted from 12 feet for a triple bogey on No. 12. Woods shot 75 that day, never caught up and tied for fifth. That summer, he won the next three majors.
For Woods, it has always been about giving himself chances.
The Masters might be his best chance since 2009, when he coughed up a two-shot lead to Y.E. Yang on the last day of the PGA Championship. Everything fell apart soon after that — revelations of his extramarital affairs, losing his wife in a divorce, finding a new swing coach, coping with more injuries to his left leg.
Woods never liked the notion that this is a comeback. When he won the Chevron World Challenge at the end of 2011 — his first trophy of any kind in the two years since his car hit the fire hydrant and his personal life imploded — he cited the lyrics of LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
But that wasn’t necessarily true. He wasn’t No. 1 in the world. He wasn’t even the best player in golf. That was McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open by a record score in 2011 and the PGA Championship by a record margin a year later. McIlroy was looked upon as the favorite at the Masters until Woods won his last two tournaments.
If it’s McIlroy in a green jacket at Augusta National, the road back for Woods will look longer than ever.
At the moment, Woods has turned the corner and is picking up speed.