Graeme McDowell had high hopes of spoiling yet another Tiger Woods comeback story but in the end he couldn’t lay a glove on the 14-time major winner in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
This time there was to be no repeat of the 2010 Chevron World Challenge victory by the former US Open champion. Woods, as his caddie Joe LaCava told reporters afterwards, was “a man on a mission.”
One behind Woods starting the day, McDowell shot a 74 to Tiger’s 70 to finish five shots behind in second place.
The 36-year old Californian ended a 30-month winless streak on the PGA Tour to set the game and especially the TV networks into a frenzy of excitement about next week’s Masters. Some will argue that the former world No 1 was not put under enough pressure by McDowell but the truth is that the Portrush man played well. Woods was simply too much in control.
Just two weeks after limping out of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, Woods won in a canter. Just two days before his former coach Han Haney publishes a book giving intimate details about his life, Woods made sure he captured the headlines for the next 10 days.
If the world’s top 3 of Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood were watching, they were certainly in no hurry to tweet their congratulations to Woods, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill for the seventh time on 13 under par and became the favourite to win the Masters and his 15th major next week.
“I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback,” McDowell said, insisting he was excited about his own game. “Great to have a front row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best, winning golf tournaments.
“Of course, I believed I had a chance today, but I just never really got close enough to the guy. He played well today and deserves his win, and you know, great to have him back winning tournaments.
“I think he’s great for the world of golf, and great for the excitement levels and the atmosphere and TV and fans, and great for this game….
“It was an up‑and‑down day for sure. There was a lot of good, and a few too many mistakes.”
McDowell certainly did himself no favours by making a double bogey six on the opening hole, where he plugged his approach so badly in a front greenside bunker after a tough second that he thinned his third into a back bunker and failed to find the putting surface in four.
Suddenly Woods was three clear and while he made a three-putt bogey at the second and saw McDowell match his kick in birdie at the third with a 47-foot bomb from the fringe, he neatly sidestepped every banana-skin on the way to recording his 72nd PGA Tour victory.
Woods birdied the par-five fourth to go three clear again and even though McDowell holed a 50 footer for eagle at the sixth, Woods tapped in for an easy birdie there before doubling his advantage to four shots by the turn.
Woods birdied the eighth from two feet and watched McDowell miss a four footer for par at the ninth on a day of tricky winds, firm greens and difficult pin positions.
Just two players broke 70 and McDowell made too many mistakes at the wrong time to worry Woods. The former world No 1 was in cruise control on the back nine.
When McDowell birdied the 11th from 23 feet to briefly close to within three shots, he bogeyed the par-five 12th to all but kiss the title goodbye.
“Like I say, 12 was a big turning point for me,” said McDowell, who never got closer to Woods than two shots. “I tried to hit the aggressive lay‑up, tugged it in the bunker left myself 90 yards out of a trap into the wind, which is not what you want and got a little too aggressive with a putt.
“That was a big key. If I make birdie there, make I can put a squeeze on him. I just never really got close enough to him today.”.
After both bogeyed the short 14th, Woods made a great par save from 12 feet at the 15th and McDowell missed a six foot birdie chance on the par five 16th.
It was all over bar a disaster from Woods at the last but he made no mistake in recording a regulation four.
Woods said: “It feels good - it feels really good. It’s been a lot of hard work and I’m so thankful for a lot of people helping me out along the way. They all know who they are.
“It was incredible to have that type of support here. I used to live here for a long time and it was neat to see some friends come out.”
Asked about The Masters Tournament he added: “I am excited, there’s no doubt. It’s always fun to get there and play and I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built up here.
“The things I’ve been working on are all coming together at the right time.”
McDowell was philosophical about the day and bullish about his game as the first major of the season rolls around.
“Tough day conditions‑wise. You know, plugging into the right trap on one and making double was just not the start I had in mind. I let him get ahead of me early and he was very tough to get close to after that.
“Some good stuff today mixed in with some mistakes. All in all very happy with the way my game is feeling. … It was a case of me playing average and he was playing well. Like I say, giving him a two‑shot start on the first green was just not what I was looking for. I had a ball above my feet lie on one, trying to hit a hook back there into the green and just got under it a little bit.
“I hit a lot of quality iron shots, I’m very proud of myself the way I hung in there this week. This is a tough golf course, and like I say, it’s a great warmup for Augusta, because this is a very major‑like golf course.
“…I happened to run into a resurgent Tiger Woods. But these things happen. You know, I hung in there, pretty tough, middle of the round. Like I say, 12 was a big turning point for me, making bogey there just killed my momentum a little bit. But all in all a great week.”
Both men were saddened that Arnold Palmer was not at the 18th green to greet the winner and present him with the trophy. That was because “The King” was hospitalised in the afternoon as a result of high blood pressure following a change of medication and kept in overnight as a precaution.
“Nobody is overly concerned about the prognosis,” said Alaistair Johnston, Palmer’s longtime business manager.
Woods refused to consider the win a comeback, insisting that he got that out of the way by winning the Chevron World Challenge at the end of last year.
But he could not hide his satisfaction at the fact that he appears physically and mentally capable of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major wins.
“I am excited, no doubt,” Woods said. “I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built here.”
Tweeting later, Woods added: “Heading home now and I can’t stop smiling. Thanks to Otown fans and everyone watching for all the love. Get well soon, Arnie.”