Tiger Woods is in a very familiar position at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he will take a two-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round. But a victory in Orlando would give him something he hasn’t had since 2009: confidence heading into Augusta.
Bay Hill has treated Woods well throughout his career, and if he remains atop the leaderboard after Sunday’s round, he will capture the title at this competition for the eighth time.
With The Masters just a few weeks away, this victory will get the golf world buzzing about a possible end to the longest major drought of Woods’ career.
He went winless at all of the marquee tournaments in 2009; then injuries and an infidelity scandal derailed his career and cost him his spot atop the World Golf Rankings. The 2008 U.S. Open is Woods’ last victory at a major, and if he fails to win at Augusta, the drought will last at least a full five years.
Woods took an extended break at the start of 2010, and his first tournament of the year was The Masters. He delivered an impressive showing and finished fourth.
A year later, he did not impress at the four tournaments leading up to his trip to Augusta but still managed to finish fourth again. In 2012, he was able to build momentum leading up to the first major of the year with a second-place finish at the Honda Classic and a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but then he flopped at The Masters and finished 40th.
He did better at the remaining majors, but a victory eluded him. Now, he’s playing his best golf since his fall from grace.
Woods failed to win a single PGA tournament in 2010 and notched just one victory in 2011. He showed improvement in 2012 and topped three leaderboards during the season.
If he holds on to his lead at Bay Hill, he will already have his third victory of the 2013 season. The last time he had three wins under his belt before The Masters was in 2008.
He finished second to Trevor Immelman at Augusta that year but went on to win the U.S. Open. That was Woods at his best, and it is not entirely clear if that player has resurfaced.
There have been a handful of moments over the past few years where fans have wanted to declare that Tiger is back, but he built his reputation on being one of the greatest athletes his sport has ever seen. Woods will not officially be back until he wins a major.
Unfortunately for Woods, it’s not good enough for him to just win PGA events and compete with the other players in the field. Due to his prodigious talent and incredible success earlier in his career, he is competing with the legends of the game every time he hits the course.
Right now, he is losing that battle. There was only one point in Jack Nicklaus’ career in which he went five years between winning majors. This came between his 17th victory at the 1980 PGA Championship and his 18th and final win at the 1986 Masters at the age of 46.
Woods still has a few years until age will start limiting his ability to dominate, and he needs to take advantage of this time if he hopes to have a chance at catching Nicklaus’ record. Woods will only be back once he starts making another push toward his 18th career victory at a major.
This means that a victory for Woods at Bay Hill will not have a whole lot of meaning in itself. But it will put him in better form than he has been since the end of 2009, and there will be more optimism surrounding his arrival at Augusta than there was in any of the previous three years.