ORLANDO, Fla. — The moment was vintage Tiger Woods, and so was his reaction.
Seconds after Rickie Fowler made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole to pull two shots behind the lead, Woods posed over his 25-foot birdie putt until he swept the putter upward in his left hand and marched toward the cup as the ball dropped for a birdie.
Fowler, standing on the edge of the green, turned with a slight smile as if to say, “What else can I do?”
Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Monday and returned to No. 1 in the world for the first time since October 2010, the longest spell of his career. After all that time, after so much turmoil with his personal life and his health, Woods looks as good as ever.
“It’s a byproduct of hard work, patience and getting back to winning golf tournaments,” Woods said.
He essentially wrapped up his eighth title at Bay Hill with an 8-iron out of a fairway bunker on the par-5 16th that easily cleared the water and landed safely on the green for a two-putt birdie. Woods dangled his tongue out of his mouth as the ball was in the air, another sign of his swagger.
Just like his other two wins this year, Woods never let anyone get closer than two shots in the final round. With a conservative bogey he could afford on the final hole, he closed with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot victory over Justin Rose.
Woods walked off the 18th green waving his putter over his head — truly a magic wand at Bay Hill — to acknowledge the fans. His eighth win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied a PGA Tour record that had not been touched in 48 years.
Woods tied the eight wins Sam Snead had at the Greater Greensboro Open from 1938-65 at two golf courses. Woods tied his own record for most tour wins at a single golf course. He has won eight times at Torrey Pines, including a U.S. Open.
The win had extra significance. He’s No. 1 again.
“If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level,” Woods said. “… That was the first step in the process. Once I got (healthy), then my game turned.”
A year ago, he arrived at Bay Hill without having won in more than 21/2 years. He left this year having won six times in his last 20 starts on the PGA Tour.
Next up is the Masters, where Woods will try to end his five-year drought in the majors.
“I’m really excited about the rest of this year,” he said.
Woods fell as low as No. 58 in the world as he coped with the collapse of his marriage, a loss of sponsors and injuries to his left leg. One week after he announced he was dating Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, Woods returned to the top of golf.
“Number 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!” Vonn tweeted moments after his win.
Asked if there was any correlation between winning and going public with his relationship, Woods smiled and said, “You’re reading way too much into this.”
He walked off the green to share a handshake with Palmer, along with a big smile and some words that Woods said were best kept private. He left the course in that familiar blue blazer that goes to the winner.
And he left as the No. 1 player in the world. Still to be determined is how long Woods stays there.