Planet Golf — 26 March 2012 by Jim Street
Tiger ends 923-day win drought

So much has happened to Tiger Woods during the past three years that you had to wonder if he would ever win another golf tournament.

He changed coaches, swings, caddies and sponsors. Injuries caused him to spend more time in hospitals than on golf courses. His personal life was a shambles for the early part of the 923 days he went without an “official” victory on the PGA Tour.

But the smile Tiger flashed as he walked towards the 18th green on Sunday afternoon in Orlando, Fla. — his longtime home before the world came crashing down on him because of numerous extramarrital affairs – suggested that happy days are here again.

Indeed, four solid rounds in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, capped by Sunday’s  2-under 70, presented Woods with a five-shot victory, his first in a full field event since 2009.

“It does feel good. It feels really good,” Woods said. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”

Woods finished the tournament at 13-under 275 for his 72nd PGA Tour win, pulling to within one of Jack Nicklaus for second place on the career list behind Sam Snead.

But the Nicklaus record Tiger wants the most is the 18 majors Jack won during his career. Woods still needs four more to tie the Golden Bear and based on what happened this week, the next major – the Masters – could become Tiger’s 15th.

“I am excited, no doubt,” Tiger aid of the (April 5-8) Masters. “I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built here.”

In light of Sunday’s triumph, a round that started with him holding a one-shot lead, Woods no doubt will be favored to win the Masters.

But in the big picture, he really needed a win, any win, to get over the large hump that started with the sex scandal that destroyed his marriage and no doubt contributed to the longest slump of his golfing career.

Woods has been on the verge of a mind-easing win, but until Sunday he never able to pull it off with steady, consistent play over a four-day stretch. But he was below par in each round of the Palmer tournament, the first time that’s happened since the 2010 Masters.

Tiger was solid from tee to green and was able to pull away from Graeme McDowell on the final nine holes of Sunday’s final round. Woods was the only golfer in the final eight groups to shoot under-par. That said more about how good his game was than how poorly others played.

McDowell made a 45-foot birdie putt and a 50-foot eagle putt early in the round to try to stay close, though he was never closer than two shots after starting with a double bogey. He closed with a 74 and was the first to shake Tiger’s hand as they strolled up the 18th fairway.

Meanwhile, Ernie Els failed in his bid to get into the Masters. The three-time major champion started the final round three shots behind, but twice missed par putts inside 3 feet and shot 75. He would have needed a two-way tie for second to crack the top 50 in the world. Instead, he tied for fourth and will have to win the Houston Open next week to avoid missing the Masters for the first time since 1993.

As for Woods, this was his seventh PGA career win at Bay Hill.

“He was a man on a mission today,” new caddie Joe LaCava said. “He was pretty jacked up. He was out there to prove himself.”

The win catapulted Woods to No. 6 in the world rankings, the first time he has been in the top 10 since last May 22. This was his first victory on the PGA Tour since the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009.

A little more than two months later, the “other” Tiger Woods emerged and neither he, nor pro golf, has been quite the same since.

Normality seems to have returned on Sunday.

Tourney notes:

* Ernie Els, needing a second or solo-third place finish to move into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings and a subsequent invitation to the Masters, finished T4. The top-10 finish is the fourth in 18 starts for Els at the Arnold Palmer Invitational (1st-1998, 2010; T4-2012; T9-2002).

*Bud Cauley posted the third top-10 finish of his career (18 starts) this week with a tie for fourth. The former University of Alabama standout had Tony Navarro on his bag this week at Bay Hill.

*Johnson Wagner finished tied for fourth, his career-high fourth top 10 of the season (nine starts). The 2012 Sony Open in Hawaii winner will head to the Shell Houston Open next week – the site of the first of his three tour wins (2008). Wagner’s finish this week moved him to No. 1 in the FedExCup standings, two points ahead of Rory McIlroy.

*Defending champion Martin Laird finished tied for 36tg in his attempt to become the third player to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in back-to-back seasons (Loren Roberts, 1994-95; Tiger Woods, 2000-03, 2008-09).

*Ryan Moore and Brian Davis, tied for fourth, earned their first top 10 of the season (eight starts for both).

*Since the start of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 1966, only Fred Couples (1992) and Tiger Woods (2001, 2002) have won the Masters and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in the same year. Since 1960, only six players have won an event in the two weeks prior to winning the Masters: Phil Mickelson (2006), Tiger Woods (2001), Sandy Lyle (1988), Jack Nicklaus (1975), Gay Brewer (1967) and Gary Player (1961).

Palmer hospitalized

Tournament host Arnold Palmer wasn’t at the 18th green, as is his custom, to congratulate Woods on his seventh victory at tournament that bears the legend’s name.

Palmer was taken to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital and was to remain there overnight. He has been taking a new medicine and having some issues with his blood pressure, so doctors were monitoring it throughout the day.

About 15 minutes before the competition ended, Palmer had undergone another routine test. During that test, though, the doctors decided he should head to the hospital.

“It wasn’t anything to do with any ailments or any discomfort he felt,” Alastair Johnston, the COO of Arnold Palmer Enterprises said. “The blood pressure was at a level where the doctor involved suggested that he go immediately to get more intensive evaluation at the hospital.”

Johnston met with the media after Woods’ press conference. He said he had just talked with Palmer’s daughter, Amy, and the outlook was positive.

“I think the blood pressure situation is starting to ameliorate and improving,” Johnston said. “And nobody is overly concerned about the prognosis, although he is going to remain in the hospital overnight for observation.”

Champions Tour

Fred Couples drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to claim a one-shot victory in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic played in Saucier, Miss. It was Couples’ seventh win in 30 Champions Tour events that he’s played.

Couples started the day tied for the lead with Jeff Sluman, but he moved ahead with a birdie on the first hole. He led the rest of the day until the 17th, when his bogey dropped him into a tie with Michael Allen.

But Couples was perfect on the 18th, which is the toughest-rated hole on the course. He hit his drive in the middle of the fairway and then stuck the approach 8 feet from the hole. His winning putt was slightly downhill and looked good all the way.

He shot a 3-under 69 in the final round to win $240,000.

Couples finished at 14 under for the tournament. Allen finished one stroke behind, and Sluman and Tom Pernice Jr. finished tied for third at 10 under.

Couples got the victory as he prepares for a few weeks on the PGA Tur. He’s scheduled to play in the Shell Houston Open next week and will then head to the Masters, where he’s had plenty of recent success, with top-15 finishes the past two years. He won in 1992 and has 10 career top 10s.

LPGA

Chalk up another win for Yani Tseng.

The most dominant player on the LPGA Tour added her second straight victory and third of the season on Sunday with a 2-under 70 to win the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif., by six shots.

Next up: The first major of the season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

“I can’t wait to start on Thursday,” the top-ranked Taiwanese star said.

She will be seeking her sixth major title this week at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage.

Last year in the Kraft Nabisco, Tseng had the 54-hole lead, but closed with a 74 and lost to Stacy Lewis. It was the last time in seven events that Tseng has lost going into the final round with the lead.

On Sunday, the 23-year-old Tseng became the second-youngest player to reach 15 LPGA Tour victories. Nancy Lopez was 22 when she reached the mark.

Tseng won the LPGA Founders Cup last week in Phoenix and also won the LPGA Thailand in February. She led the tour last season with seven victories — including major victories in the LPGA Championship and Women’s British Open — and finished the year with 12 worldwide titles.

She finished at 14-under 274 on La Costa’s Legends Course and has had at least a share of the lead after all eight rounds the last two weeks.

“Today the first hole, I just kind of felt like every day is the same,” Tseng said. “I didn’t feel like today was Sunday. I didn’t feel like I had a three-shot lead. I just focused on playing one shot at a time. I think I did a good job to just kind of focus on myself.”

South Korea’s Sun Young Yoo had a 71 to finish second.

With the victory Sunday, she earned her 23rd point toward qualifying for the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame. Twenty-seven points and 10 years of service on the LPGA Tour are needed for induction.

“The Hall of Fame is my dream since I was young,” Tseng said. “The first year on the Tour, I mean, that really is my big dream. So I always keep that in my mind, and I try to win every tournament, focus on every tournament to see how I can improve.”

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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