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Once again, Woods is good to the last drop

Tiger Woods sports a big smile and a new jacket after winning Arnold Palmer's tournament, his fifth straight PGA title. Tiger Woods sports a big smile and a new jacket after winning Arnold Palmer's tournament, his fifth straight PGA title. (Gary W. Green/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / March 17, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla. - For all the times he wins by 15 shots or 12 or merely eight, it is those times when he wins by just one that the true genius of Tiger Woods shines.

For all the swing changes and massive power that frame his game, it is those times when he settles into a basic putting stance that the glory of Woods's strength flows forth.

Rarely in his world do those circumstances cross paths with such a delectable story line, but yesterday was just such an occasion, because in pulsating sunshine on the Bay Hill Club's 18th hole, the golf was stripped to the ultimate in competition: Make the putt and win.

Woods made it and while the resultant victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational hardly could be classified as a surprise - he has, after all, won each of his three starts this year and five in a row on the PGA Tour - the dramatic ride upon which he sweeps the world of sports ceases to amaze.

"That's why Tiger's Tiger," said Bart Bryant, who did what PGA Tour observers have been demanding for years. He stood up to Woods. Unfortunately for him, no one stands taller than this 32-year-old phenom.

Staring down a putt of about 25 feet, Woods knew it would curl left-to-right, and given the damage done by insidious worms earlier this spring, the surface would be slow. "It took forever to start breaking," said Woods, "but once it started taking it . . . "

You can guess the rest, because while the plot was changed slightly, it wound up with Woods winning, as the birdie put an exclamation point on a 4-under-par 66 that left him at 10-under 270, one better than Bryant (67).

Unlike so many walk-overs and wire-to-wire performances that have cemented his legend, this one came from his bottomless well of fortitude. Having trailed by five after the first day and seven through 36, Woods went 56 holes before he could call a lead his own. And even then, he had the outright lead for just 11 holes and only for mere minutes did he ever have a two-shot cushion. All of which might explain why he was as demonstrative as you'll ever see him after a victory, because you can rest assured it wasn't the $1,044,000 that made him take off his cap and slam it to the ground as he also dropped his putter and punched the sultry air.

"I was so into the moment of the putt going in and winning the golf tournament," said Woods, who added yet another entry to his seemingly endless list of accomplishments, only this time, no one can point fingers and say the competition backed down.

"We didn't lose it. [Woods] won it," said Mark Johnston, Bryant's agent who was forced into caddie duties this week. If he never does it again, Johnston will be able to point to a great one in which to be involved, for Bryant was the only player in the field to shoot four rounds in the 60s and he did something few of his colleagues was able to do.

"I'm going to put the pressure on Tiger," said Bryant, explaining his approach at the 18th that settled in some 35 feet left of the pin. Conservative? He conceded it was, "but I felt like that was my best chance at that point."

Behind him, Woods was converting a two-putt par at the par-3 17th to remain tied, so when Bryant couldn't convert his birdie try at the 18th, the world's best player embraced the scenario that was now in focus.

"It's in your hands, not anyone else's," said Woods. "It's like having the ball with a few seconds to go. Do you want it, or not want it? I would much rather have it in my hands than anyone else's."

As a reminder, he had earned the opportunity to get the ball thanks to his heroics 24 hours earlier. In Round 3, with so many leaders floundering, Woods had completed a round of 66 to get into a five-way tie at 6 under with Sean O'Hair, Bubba Watson, Vijay Singh, and Bryant. No surprise that out of that logjam came Woods, who birdied the par-3 second to seize the outright lead, then added birdies at the par-5 sixth and par-4 ninth to get to the turn in 32 tidy shots.

When Woods's playing competitor, O'Hair, shot 37, Watson had a 39, Singh made nine pars, and Bryant turned in 34, it was a two-shot lead for the world's top-ranked player - though only briefly. That's because Woods came in behind Bryant's birdie at the par-4 10th with a sloppy three-putt bogey to create a two-way tie at 8 under. The race, as it turns out, was on, for Bryant offset a bogey at the 11th with a birdie at the 12th, then fell behind by one when Woods birdied the 13th. But Bryant refused to blink; instead, he drilled his approach inside 4 feet at the par-4 15th, made the putt, and created a tie coming down Bay Hill's grueling close.

"He has a habit of making it when he needs to," said Bryant. They matched pars at the par-4 16th and par-3 17th, and each drove it into the fairway at the closing hole. When Bryant couldn't convert his birdie try, he signed his card and settled into the scorer's trailer, and while there's no TV, there also wasn't any concern on his part. Told that Woods had shaped a deft 5-iron from 165 yards into a sturdy breeze to set up a birdie putt, Bryant nodded.

"I'll sit here and listen," Bryant told the scorekeeper not 100 yards from the 18th green. "I'll know if he makes it or not."

The thunderous roar was his signal to leave.

It was Woods's 64th win and tied him with Ben Hogan on the career list. Only Sam Snead (82) and Jack Nicklaus (73) have more. Extend the picture to unofficial (Target World Challenge) and European Tour (Dubai Desert Classic) events, and Woods has won seven in a row, but if you prefer to keep it just to the PGA Tour, his streak is at five and he's also won seven of the last eight.

Utterly dominating stuff. Bryant knows that and he knows that his colleagues know that, and perhaps most golf fans do, too. "But I think the golf public in general doesn't get it, to be honest with you," he said.

Woods left no doubt that he knows what it's all about.

"Trust me," he said. "That's the rush, to be in that position."

Again.

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