The Australian Adam Scott was asked last week if Tiger Woods could win the Masters.
“This Masters?” said Scott, the 2013 champion, emphasizing the first word. “That would match the entire story of his career.”
Augusta National is Woods’s next stop, and after he posted his 10th consecutive competitive round of par or better — and spent the final nine in contention for the second straight week — he sounded as if the opening round of the Masters on April 5 couldn’t arrive soon enough.
“If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Woods said.
From mid-October, when he stood on the practice range making his first tentative full swings after lower lumbar fusion surgery, to Sunday, when he pulled within one stroke of the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with five holes to play, Woods has come remarkably far, remarkably fast.
He approached the final round at Bay Hill Club knowing he had to make aggressive swings if he was going to catch the leaders, who started 50 minutes after him. He started the round five shots back, but surged tantalizingly close to the lead by collecting six birdies and a bogey heading to the par-5 16th hole. That was where Woods’s go-for-broke approach was his undoing. He opted for his driver when a 3-wood would have served him better, and his tee shot went out of bounds, leading to the first of back-to-back bogeys.
As Rory McIlroy surged to the victory here, Woods settled for his second straight three-under 69 to finish in a tie for fifth at 10 under, eight strokes behind McIlroy.
“If I can play with no pain and I can feel like I can make golf swings, I’ll figure it out,” said Woods, who has played five official PGA Tour events since returning from his latest surgery. “I’m starting to piece it together tournament by tournament, and each tournament’s gotten a little crisper and a little bit better.”
Who would dare discount his chances at Augusta National, where he has won four times?
McIlroy, perhaps. He started the final round at Bay Hill two strokes off the third-round lead, held by Henrik Stenson, and closed with an eight-under 64 to secure his first victory on the PGA Tour since the 2016 Tour Championship.
Bryson DeChambeau, a 24-year-old American who said the example of Woods’s 79 tour victories and 14 major titles pushed him to become a better player, posted a 68 to finish second, three strokes behind McIlroy and one ahead of Justin Rose (67), who has three worldwide victories since October. Stenson posted his second consecutive 71 to finish fourth at 13 under.
In 2013, Woods won this event for the eighth time to supplant McIlroy as the world No. 1. That came a little over a year after McIlroy held off a fast-charging Woods, who closed with a 62, to win the Honda Classic and assume the top spot. Their May-October rivalry was one of the top stories in golf until Woods’s back started to betray him, leading to four operations.
McIlroy was the third player in the modern era, after Jack Nicklaus and Woods, to win 10 tour events before age 26. McIlroy, now 28, can complete a career Grand Slam with a victory at the Masters.
On the back nine Sunday, McIlroy backed away from a putt on the 11th hole because of a “Tiger” chant that rocked the course.
“The Rory chant was not quite as loud,” said McIlroy, who played the final 13 holes in eight under, including a chip-in birdie at No. 15.
After making pars on the first five holes, “I played a perfect round of golf,” he said.
McIlroy put together a string of indifferent results — two missed cuts and zero top-15 finishes in his first four PGA Tour events of the calendar year — and the focus shifted until he seemingly was out of the picture. McIlroy was asked to assess the title chances at Augusta National of Phil Mickelson, Woods, Rose — everybody, it seemed, but himself.
“I’m happy to answer those questions,” McIlroy said. “I just hope they get some questions about me now.”
Through all the missed cuts and early Sunday afternoon finishes, McIlroy never lost faith in his abilities.
“I know that I’ve got a gift for this game,” he said, “and I know that if I put the time in, I can make a lot of it. I guess that’s what kept me going.”
Woods wondered at times over the past three years if he would ever return to top form. But to the people who battled him back when he was the game’s gold standard, the only surprising aspect of his return is how fast he has found his way into contention.
Graeme McDowell noted that Woods had come back from not just from injuries, but also from “having your personal life absolutely stripped bare in public.”
“I figured he could come back,” McDowell said. “But I didn’t think he could come back this quickly.”