(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
A celebratory high-five with his caddie before he ever got to the green. More happiness than most galleries have witnessed since a sex scandal ripped apart his life and helped take down his game.
The only thing missing on the best day Tiger Woods has had in the last 30 months was a huge sigh of relief.
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He knew this day was coming even when his drives were going sideways and his putts weren’t even scaring the hole. Knew it even when fans around the world were deserting him, sickened by tales of his philandering.
We should have known it, too. This is, after all, Tiger Woods, and nothing he does should ever surprise us.
He is the greatest player of his era. He may still become the greatest player ever.
He won Sunday at Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill, hoisting a trophy on the PGA Tour for the first time in 923 days. In true Woods style, he did it in his last outing before the Masters, setting the stage for what could be an epic chase for the green jacket at Augusta National.
Take away the circumstances and there wasn’t anything especially dramatic about it. Just the kind of grind it out, beat them down, style of golf he once took for granted.
The kind of golf only Woods could play.
The kind of golf we wondered if he would play again.
He conquered personal demons and he conquered swing demons. He did it in the face of intense scrutiny, insisting all along that it was part of the process and that he would eventually prevail.
When it was over, he had a five-shot win and his 72nd tour victory. No one challenged him because, well, he played so well no one had a chance.
The swing was different, but there was no dispute: This was the Tiger Woods of old.
”He was a man on a mission today,” caddie Joe LaCava said. ”He was pretty jacked up. He was out there to prove himself.”
What that means for the future, Woods wasn’t about to say. He barely acknowledged the significance of it all, claiming that his victory in his own tournament in December with a small, hand-picked field was his first real comeback win.
People around golf know better. This was a statement made on the golf course, a statement that will reverberate on the driving ranges and through the locker rooms. And if Woods wouldn’t go there, his playing partner was more than willing to oblige.
”I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback,” Graeme McDowell said. ”Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best, winning golf tournaments.”
What had to be almost as gratifying for Woods was having his fans back, too. They stood and cheered as they did during the frenzy of his prime, before he was caught in the scandal that cost him his marriage and a few years of his career. They may not have forgotten, but they seem to have forgiven.
In the NBC broadcast booth, Johnny Miller got a little swept up in the moment himself, saying Woods could win another 35 to 40 tournaments before his career is over.
That may still happen, though injuries and age could derail Woods at any time. He withdrew from his last tournament with an Achilles tendon strain and, with four surgeries on his left knee over the years, he seems an old 36.
But it’s the pursuit of majors that matters most to Woods, and that’s another reason why this win was so big. There are four of them now squarely in his wheelhouse this year, and winning one or two would go a long way in getting him off the 14-win mark and pointed toward his childhood goal of beating the record of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus.
The first one of those is the week after next in Augusta, a place where Woods scored his breakthrough win in 1997 and a place he probably knows better than anyone. He scared the leaders with a final-round surge there last year even when he wasn’t hitting the ball particularly well, and he will surely go in as a favorite for his fifth green jacket.
The old saying is that the Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday, but this year it may have begun two Sundays early.
”I understand how to play Augusta National, and it’s just a matter of executing the game plan,” Woods said.
On this Sunday in Florida, his win looked so familiar it was almost as if the 30 months between victories never happened. The golf universe was suddenly at peace again, back in safe hands.
Tiger Woods was celebrating at long last. Maybe we should, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg