PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida, AP
The drought was the longest Tiger Woods had ever faced at the start of a new season, but he never sounded concerned about everyone winning on the PGA Tour except him. He pointed to his scores, which were similar to the year before. And more than once, he said that only four weeks a year — the majors — really matter. “Win those four weeks, you’ve had a pretty good year,” he said. The Bay Hill Invitational is hardly a major, but it certainly puts Woods in a good frame of the mind for the first one. With a little bit of luck and an extraordinary amount of skill, Woods turned potential disaster into birdies on two of the last three holes to beat Phil Mickelson by one stroke Sunday at Bay Hill for his first victory of the year. His reaction spoke volumes — a rat-a-tat pumping of fists; a roar; a hug for his caddie; an enormous smile; and when he sat down in a high-back chair, a heavy sigh. “More than anything, it feels good to win,” Woods said. It came in his seventh tournament, the longest he had gone without winning at the start of a season since it took five events after he turned pro in 1996. His 3-under 69 won’t earn him style points, even though he finished in style. He came within 1.2 meters (4 feet) of going out of bounds with his drive on the par-5 16th, then hit 7-iron out of the rough and over the water for a two-putt birdie. Then, he got a good bounce off a spectator’s neck to stay in bounds on the 18th, and hit a 5-iron from a hardpan lie into 4.5 meters (15 feet) for the winning birdie. “This is what you need to have happen in order to win,” Woods said. “You’re going to have to somehow grab some great breaks and have luck on your side. You can’t always play well on Sunday and win.” The timing couldn’t be better. The Masters is only 18 days away, and Augusta National will be buzzing like never before in its 67-year history as Woods tries to become the first player to hold all four major championship trophies at the same time. There will not be any buzz about a slump because it no longer exists — if it ever did in the first place. Questions about what was wrong with Woods’ game began to annoy him, and he even took a jab at those who thought he was struggling. “I guess if I don’t win next week … I don’t know if it’s a slump or not,” he said. But even Woods had to take stock of how much one victory translates into momentum. There is no better cure than winning, but Woods might have felt a little confident had he been able to win without the theatrics. His driving was so erratic — only one fairway hit with a driver in his hands — that his goal down the stretch was to keep the ball between the out-of-bounds stakes. Needing birdie to win on the last hole, Woods hit a “Nolan Ryan curve ball” off the 18th tee at Bay Hill and survived only with a 5-iron that was as good as any shot he hit last year. He was in the same position two weeks ago in Dubai, hit his drive far to the right and paid the price by taking double bogey and losing to Thomas Bjorn. When asked if the victory at Bay Hill gave him momentum, Woods paused. “I would say yes, but the way I played today … it would be hard to say yes,” he said. “If I look back at my first three rounds, I really played good. I just scored well today. I guess that gives you positive vibes.” The dress rehearsal is this week at The Players Championship, one of the toughest tests of the year on the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass — the tightest fairways, the thickest rough and, depending on the rain that soaked the course Monday, the hardest greens. “Obviously, I need to start hitting the ball and controlling my trajectory a little bit better,” Woods said. “Going into Augusta, that’s what you’re going to have to do.” The Players Championship is the most prestigious tournament that does not have a mug shot of Woods on its wall of champions. He came close last year, finishing second by one stroke to a determined Hal Sutton. No one has ever won The Players Championship and the Masters in the same year, although that won’t keep Woods from trying. “I’m motivated to win every week,” he said. But the real motivation is at Augusta, which has been in the back of his mind since the new year started. It becomes a little more clearer now, especially now that even the smallest doubts about winning have been removed.