Tiger now ‘the man to beat’ at Masters

“Effin yeah!”

And with a less-sanitized version of those words to his caddie, Tiger Woods hit safely onto the final green at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday to draw the curtain on the darkest chapter of his life with his first official victory on the PGA Tour since 2009.

Two years, six months and 12 days of scandal, divorce, humiliation and injury, of losing sponsors and fans, of changing coaches and caddies and houses. Of hearing that he was done; that he’d never come back.

The journey from champion to the butt of jokes and back to the familiar role of Masters favorite took 923 days.

And, be sure, he now is the favorite to win a fifth green jacket in 10 days.

“Just pure joy,” Woods said after his commanding five-stroke victory at Bay Hill.

Yet beyond the final green, where he celebrated as he always has, with fist pumps and a bear hug for his caddie — now Joe LaCava instead of Steve Williams — Woods was restrained, showing little of that pure joy.

He might have used the moment to stick it to the critics who said he’d never win again, or at least acknowledge a great weight’s been lifted from his shoulders, or just act like this seventh career win at Bay Hill was in some way important.

But Tiger Woods doesn’t roll like that.

He’s always been muted in his victory celebrations because he thinks he should act like it’s normal that he wins.

And he’s never thought he was making a comeback because, in his mind, he never left. His view is that he’s been sidelined by injuries and has been learning a new swing.

So PGA tour career win No. 72 — which leaves him one behind Jack Nicklaus — was, in a word, “nice.”

“It’s not like winning a major championship or anything, but it certainly feels really good,” Woods said.

All that tells you is that it’s better to talk to those around Woods for the real story.

“He’s very jacked,” said LaCava. “He probably wishes the Masters was tomorrow.”

The caddie called Woods — who shot a two-under-par 70 on Sunday, one of the best scores on a difficult day — “a man on a mission today.”

“You saw the ball-striking. Let’s be honest, he shot 13-under and won by five, and that’s about the worst score he could’ve shot,” he said.

Woods, LaCava acknowledged, “was out to prove himself.”

“Even a guy like that still needs to win to have confidence and gain more confidence, so I think it gives him a lot of confidence going in Augusta and the rest of the year,” he said.

“It proves to him that all the hard work’s paid off and he can still get it done.

“I don’t think he ever doubted himself, but it’s nice to win so you can have that confidence.”

Graeme McDowell, the gritty 2010 US Open champion, tried to stop the Woods coronation Sunday, playing alongside him in the final. But in the end, McDowell made too many mistakes, shooting 74 to finish in second place.

“He played very, very well. The better man won today,” the Irishman conceded.

“The message to the golfing world is he’s back.

“It’s a cliché, but he’s back.

“There’s nothing quite like winning; winning breeds winning.

“I guess as far as players go, it’s bad news because Tiger’s back winning.”

What Woods did at Bay Hill — which was set up like a major championship — wasn’t lost on his peers.

“He’s going to be the man to beat at Augusta,” said Justin Rose.

“Even Tiger playing badly has competed at Augusta the last couple of years.

“To tell you the truth, if he’s going to be playing like this again, I think he will dominate golf again.

“Maybe not to the same level as he did, but I see him winning a major a year for the next five, six years, plus four other tournaments a year, which is pretty damn good.”

But what about the young generation, led by Rory McIlroy?

“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen,” said Zach Johnson, of Woods.

“There are some young guys out there who have an immense amount of talent, but if and when they make putts when they have to make putts, then I might rescind my comment. But I haven’t seen that yet.

“But making putts when you have to make putts, executing when you have to execute, there’s no one who’s ever played the game who’s been any better than him.”

It all conspires to make this the most anticipated Masters in memory.

Rarely have all the world’s best players been at the top of their games entering the season’s first major.

And, be sure, on the ride back to his compound in Jupiter, Woods’ thoughts would’ve quickly drifted from Bay Hill to the Masters.

“I understand how to play Augusta National,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to my opportunities this year.”