Tiger tames paparazzi, aims at Bay Hill

At first glance, it seems completely out of character for the notoriously secretive Tiger Woods to so publicly change his relationship status on Facebook.

Woods is a man who refuses to confirm what tournament he’ll play next, much less voluntarily discuss which woman he’s dating.

He wouldn’t cut and paste the details of his love life — with accompanying photographs of his new flame, champion skier Lindsey Vonn – onto social media platforms without a very compelling reason.

Speculation about that reason has run the gamut since Monday’s news broke, from a troubling case of narcissism-gone-mad to an attempt by Woods to get back at his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.

He did, after all, choose the week of the Arnold Palmer Invitational — played at Bay Hill, which is about a 10-minute drive from the home he and Nordegren shared during their six year marriage — to publicly acknowledge a relationship for the first time since their divorce in 2010.

But the truth — while revealing and more than a little Machiavellian — isn’t anywhere near as juicy.

Woods decided to release the news and the photographs so he could control the message and, in the process, extend his middle finger at the paparazzi who have been tailing him for months.

He knows how the pap game works: Get the first picture of anything the gossip magazines want, and it’s a guaranteed big pay day.

But now the first photograph of Woods and Vonn together — which probably would have fetched at least half a million dollars — isn’t worth much because everyone’s seen them together with their smiles and matching sponsor outfits.

What he’s effectively done is forced the paparazzi to get off his and Vonn’s backs and stalk someone else — which, sadly, they will.

Certainly, those long lenses sticking out of bushes and trees were bothering Vonn, whose home in Colorado — which Woods has secretly visited often since last November — was constantly staked out.

So Woods will be quite pleased with himself this week as he tries to win a record eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Not only is he happily in a relationship — and not being tormented by paparazzi —but his golf’s in the best place it’s been since his life went pear-shaped in late 2009.

Of course, it’s probably not coincidental that a man happy in his life starts to play better golf.

And it certainly won’t hurt Woods’ confidence that he’s playing Bay Hill, where he’s won in seven of 12 starts since 2000.

Or that he’s coming off his most impressive win in years, by three strokes at the WGC Cadillac Championship on Doral’s famed Blue Monster two weeks ago.

Doral was Woods’ second win of the season — and fifth in his last 19 starts on the PGA tour — and set tongues wagging about green jackets.

A major, of course, is the next domino to fall for Woods, who’s been stuck on 14 since June, 2008.

He knows there will be those who won’t ever concede that he’s “back” from the abyss of scandal and divorce until he wins another major.

There’s nothing his good friend — and mentor — Arnold Palmer can do to help along those lines this week, but there is something Arnie’s Place can do for Woods.

With a win, he can reclaim the world No. 1 ranking from Rory McIlroy.

That may not seem significant in the wake of the past year, but think back to 2011, when Woods was at his lowest ebb, hobbled by injury, trying to learn a new swing and dealing — not always well — with the psychological wounds of the scandal, and it becomes altogether more impressive.

He was last ranked no. 1 on Oct. 30, 2010 and fell all the way down to 52nd in the world before climbing back.

It would be fitting if Woods reclaimed the throne at Bay Hill, because it’s been not just a happy hunting ground for him but a course that’s provided him with timely successes.

It was here that he won his first tournament since coming back from extensive knee surgery in 2009.

And it was here last year that he crossed an even more crucial line in the sand, ending a 30-month drought by winning a full-field tournament for the first time since the scandal.