With darkness descending upon him at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger Woods rolled in a perfect 16’ foot putt on the 72nd hole of the tournament to win a sixth trophy at Bay Hill.
Woods completed a monumental comeback from five-strokes back to edge Sean O’Hair by a single stroke, finishing the tourney with a five-under 275.
O’Hair had been the leader since the second round, and entered today with a five-stroke lead over Woods. Tiger had managed to grab a place in the final threesome with a miraculous, curling bogey putt from about 30 feet on Saturday.
While the third player, former Masters champion Zach Johnson, was merely window dressing, Woods immediately began his stirring final round charge with a birdie on no. two. This dropped his deficit to four shots.
On the third hole, a Woods birdie, combined with a bogey from O’Hair, slashed the lead in half, to a mere two strokes.
O’Hair’s face clearly showed the strain, and his play gave tell-tale signs of a young man feeling the pressure of trying to hold off the game’s best.
Tiger promptly gave a stroke right back, with a bogey at four. O’Hair led by three with his six-under score.
Another two-shot swing came on hole no. seven. Woods birdied while O’Hair bogeyed, and the lead was now a single stroke, the closest Woods had been all tournament long.
Remarkably, O’Hair righted his listing ship, refusing to yield to the aura of Tiger on a Sunday charge. A birdie at nine pushed him back to six-under and restored a two-stroke lead.
Tiger settled in with seven pars in a row on holes 8 through 14. With O’Hair stumbling to a bogey on 10, the lead was back to a tenuous single stroke.
One could barely escape the feeling that Tiger Woods was destined to pull off yet another remarkable Sunday rally.
Woods and O’Hair traded pars on 11, 12, 13, and 14. It was on the 14th hole that Tiger, though still a stroke behind, virtually guaranteed victory with a miraculous sand save.
After a good drive, Tiger made a poor iron shot, and left himself with a plugged lie in the green-side bunker. A sensational sand wedge shot left him a slippery 15-foot putt for par.
Tiger drained it, and an O’Hair par left the world’s no. one a single stroke back at four-under.
On the 15th hole, Woods drew into a tie with another splendid putt, this one for birdie.
This left both warriors sitting at five-under par, and set the stage for a dramatic final three holes.
Prior to Sunday, O’Hair had played the difficult 16-18 holes at even par. Woods, by stark contrast, had struggled to an erratic four-over.
But on Sunday, you can always throw the previous rounds away if Tiger Woods is anywhere close to the lead. Such was the case today.
On 16, Woods saw his drive land in the thick rough, while O’Hair was sitting in the fairway in perfect position. Advantage: Sean O’Hair.
Incredibly, though, O’Hair let his nerves get the better of him once again, chunking his approach into the lake protecting the 16th green. Woods laid up in the fairway, then placed his own approach to within three feet, and calmly sank the par putt, while O’Hair was skidding his par putt by for a bogey.
Woods had his first lead of the tournament.
No. 17 brought even more drama.
This time, O’Hair made a brilliant play, conservatively (and wisely) dropping his drive approximately 40’ away from the hole on an innocuous, flat line. He cozied his putt up to about two-feet away and converted the clutch par.
Woods, on the other hand, frittered away his advantage with a dangerous attempt to challenge the flag stick. The drive was low and short, and Woods found himself with yet another plugged lie in a bunker—this one far worst than either of the previous two he had suffered in the final round.
With an incredibly awkward stance that he could have never pulled off last year with his bad knee, Woods showed that the repaired joint was sound by muscling his wedge shot some 20’ from the hole. Though he gave the putt a good run, it slid by and he settled for a bogey.
That left Woods and O’Hair tied at four-under as they took the dramatic walk up to 18.
Twice before, in 2001 and 2008, Tiger Woods had recorded a birdie to win the Bay Hill Invitational (’01) and then the first-ever Arnold Palmer Invitational (’08).
This time, O’Hair split the fairway and left himself about 170 yards to the hole.
Woods did him one better, leaving his drive around 155 yards from the pin.
O’Hair's iron work left much to be desired, as his approach settled a distant 35’ from the flag stick and on a difficult downhill lie.
Woods, however, lasered his iron to about 16’ away from the cup, below the hole.
O’Hair predictably two-putted for par, setting the stage for Woods.
As if anyone could doubt what would happen next, Tiger sized up his putt and drained it, dead center.
Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, could be heard clearly on the network broadcast as he exclaimed: “Are you kidding me? Unbelievable!”
After recording scores of 68-69-71-67, Woods earned his sixth victory at Bay Hill, where he also won his first ever amateur national championship.
Woods’ 66th career PGA Tour victory and first of this year leaves him third on the all-time list, and draws him within seven (73) of second-place Jack Nicklaus. Slammin’ Sam Snead remains in first place with 82 career triumphs.