Woods wins Bay Hill, stays unbeaten

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tiger Woods studied his 25-foot birdie putt from every angle, convincing himself he could make it to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational because he had a similar putt in the same situation seven years ago at Bay Hill.

He wasn’t alone in his thinking.

Palmer stood behind the 18th green in his pink shirt and blue blazer, waiting to hand him the trophy. The King was joined by an army of fans who squinted into the late afternoon sun, all expecting Woods to continue a winning streak that began in September.

And then there was Bart Bryant, who challenged Woods over the final two hours, but now sat in the scoring trailer and listened.

“I heard a big cheer, and I got up and left,” Bryant said. “That’s why he’s Tiger Woods.”

This one was special.

Tied for the lead on one of the most intimidating closing holes in golf, Woods delivered his best swing of the week with a 5-iron from 164 yards into a stiff breeze, then a 25-foot birdie putt that tumbled into the cup to stretch his PGA Tour winning streak to five.

It was his 64th victory, tying Ben Hogan at No. 3 on the tour’s career list.

And it produced a celebration like none of the others. Woods backpedaled as the ball crept closer to the hole, turned and slammed his cap to the ground as he let out a roar. Woods looked perplexed when caddie Steve Williams handed him his hat.

“I was like, ‘How in the hell did he get my hat?”’ Woods said. “Evidently, it came off. I need to see the highlights. I was so into the moment of the putt going in and winning the golf tournament.”

Woods closed with a 4-under 66 to keep intact the ridiculous notion of a perfect season.

Or is it?

“What he’s doing right now, you can’t even fathom,” Bryant said after closing with a 67. He was the only player to break par all four rounds at Bay Hill, and all it got him was second place.

There have been five winning streaks of at least five tournaments in PGA Tour history. Woods owns three of them, with the others belonging to Hogan (6) and Byron Nelson, whose 11 in a row is considered among the most untouchable records in all of sports.

Woods won Bay Hill for the fifth time, becoming the first player in PGA Tour history to win at least five times in four different tournaments. The others are the Buick Invitational, Bridgestone Invitational and the CA Championship, where he plays next week at Doral as the three-time defending champion.

No wonder some are starting to question whether he will lose again.

Not since Bay Hill in 2001 against Phil Mickelson has Woods won a PGA Tour event with a birdie on the 72nd hole to win by a shot.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I’ve done this before. I did it against Phil, and this time it’s a little bit deeper into the green and the putt has a little bit more break and it has a little more grain. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again,”’ Woods said.

And he did.

Palmer grinned and nodded, as if to tell those around him, “I told you so.”

“He just said, ‘It doesn’t surprise me you made the putt,”’ Woods said, who passed Palmer on the career victory list a month ago in Arizona. “Somehow you just get a good feeling. And he being a player knows better than anybody.”

Hogan won 64 times over 21 years, the last victory coming at the 1959 Colonial National Invitational. The next target for Woods is Jack Nicklaus at 73, with Sam Snead’s record of 82 victories looking closer each time Woods plays.

“It’s pretty amazing to be in that kind of company,” Woods said. “I’ve had an amazing run in my career, and hopefully, it continues.”

No one can say these guys are laying down for Woods. He had to fight to the finish under a sweltering sun, and Bryant was visibly disappointed when he heard the roar and saw the putt. A victory would have sent him to the World Golf Championship next week, and earned him a spot in the Masters.

“I was pretty hopeless sitting there in the trailer, but I did what I thought I was supposed to do, which was put the pressure back on Tiger to make the play,” Bryant said. “And he has a habit of making it when he needs to.”

Woods has won six straight times worldwide, which includes a thrilling rally in Dubai last month. The winning streak does not include his seven-shot victory at the Target World Challenge in December, an unofficial event with 16 players.

His average score during the PGA Tour streak is 66.13, and his dominance is such that he has more career victories than Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined.

Woods finished at 10-under 270 and earned $1,044,000, putting him on the cusp of going over $80 million for his career.

Sean O’Hair, playing in the final group with Woods, overcame a sluggish start with three birdies on the back nine to keep alive slim hopes, but he could only manage a 69 to tie for third with Singh (69) and Cliff Kresge (67).

It was the biggest buzz in the final round this year, and fans who stood four-deep around Woods expected an early knockout. He delivered early with a 15-foot birdie putt on the second hole to break out of a five-way tie for the lead, and he didn’t trail again the rest of the day.

But in the stifling heat, it was never easy.

The greatest challenge came from Bryant, who played bogey-free for the first 10 holes to stay one shot behind Woods, and then both players squandered great chances to set the stage for a gritty back nine.

Woods hit yet another flawless approach to 6 feet left of the flag on No. 10 and was on the verge of going two shots ahead. But he gunned it 30 inches by the hole, quickly settled over the par putt and missed it for his first three-putt bogey of the week. That dropped him into a tie with Bryant, who had a 25-foot birdie on the 11th for the outright lead. He also three-putted for bogey, missing a 2 1/2 -foot putt to again fall one shot behind.

Woods didn’t make another birdie until the final hole.


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