Woods avoids Monday playoff with win

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Arnold Palmer couldn't see it, but he knew the ball was going where it always seems to go for Tiger Woods.

Darkness had descended upon the Bay Hill Club & Lodge and a Monday morning playoff loomed if Woods was unable to coax in another 72nd hole birdie putt, this one illuminated by scoreboard lights from across a pond.

Of course it went in. Of course Woods ripped out the heart of Sean O'Hair in the process. Of course the golf world stands by in amazement -- again.

"There wasn't any question about it, was there?" said Palmer, the 79-year-old golf legend who three times now has stood by the 18th green of his tournament and watched a man who has shattered all of his records make a winning birdie putt in dramatic fashion.

"This is the way. It's habit. It's happened every time."

Unless you are O'Hair -- who held a 5-shot lead at the beginning of the round -- or someone who likes to root against Woods, it just doesn't get any better.

In just his third tournament back following knee surgery, Woods buried a 15-foot birdie putt to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational -- a putt that all the eyeballs fixated on the game's No. 1 player had trouble tracking until it disappeared into the hole.

"I'm in serious disbelief. I don't think I've ever seen him make a putt when he had to have one. And that was the epitome of sarcasm right there," said Zach Johnson, who was in the final threesome. "The guy is amazing. I am in awe. I don't want to say shock. I'm in awe.

"It was unbelievable drama. I tried to stay in my own world. ... It's kind of hard when you're seeing what you're seeing. Obviously Tiger, when he needs to step up, he does it. It was impressive to watch."

Woods came to the 18th hole tied with O'Hair after a bogey at the 17th and hit a 7-iron from 160 yards to 15 feet. O'Hair had already knocked his second shot on the green, leaving himself a 40-footer that he lagged to within 3 feet for a par that would have meant a sudden-death playoff if Woods missed.

But when does he ever do that? The last three times he has made a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win a tournament on the PGA Tour, it was right here at Palmer's tournament -- in 2001 when he denied Phil Mickelson, last year when he stunned Bart Bryant and Sunday when O'Hair was the hard-luck loser.

And of course, there was the 15-footer in June 2008 at Torrey Pines that tied Rocco Mediate in regulation at the U.S. Open.

"I was expecting him to probably make it," O'Hair said. "I was just trying to prepare myself that if he did miss, I have to make that downhill 3-footer to take into later or tomorrow."

For Woods, there wasn't the hat throw-down like a year ago, when he drained a 25-footer, but a euphoric celebration nonetheless, one that included a hug with longtime caddie Steve Williams -- who began working for Woods at this tournament 10 years ago.

If the putt did not go in, darkness caused by a nearly two-hour rain delay would have forced the tournament to a Monday finish.

"It just felt good to be in contention again," Woods said moments after another embrace from Palmer. "It's obviously been since the U.S. Open that I was in contention on Sunday. It felt good to get in the mix, good to get the rush, get myself into the hunt."

Woods matched the biggest final-round comeback of his career on the PGA Tour -- he came back from 5 down at Pebble Beach in 2000 -- to win for the 66th time, just six behind Jack Nicklaus. It was also his sixth victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the third tournament he has won six times.

O'Hair, 26, was the witness to history for the second straight year, but this one hurt much worse. A year ago, O'Hair began the final round in a five-way tie for the lead with Woods and eventually tied for third.

This time, O'Hair had a 5-shot lead that was whittled to 2 after just three holes. It wasn't until Woods made a birdie putt at the 15th, however, that they were tied. And then Woods went ahead for the first time at the par-4 16th, saving par after a poor drive while O'Hair's second shot came up short in the water.

But Woods gave it back with a bogey at the 17th, setting up the final hole dramatics.

"I just didn't have my game today," said O'Hair, who shot 73. "He played a lot better than I did today. He deserved to win. I played hard, but I just didn't get it done."

Woods seemingly always gets it done, a final-round 3-under-par 67 for his best round of the tournament. His score Sunday gave him a winning total of 275, 5 under par. But there would have been no shame if victory had not come so soon.

After surgery to replace his anterior cruciate ligament in June 2008, Woods went nearly six months without hitting full golf shots. His first tournament back was just a month ago, and lasted only two rounds at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

Two weeks ago at Doral, Woods hit the ball beautifully but couldn't buy a putt.

This week, his ball-striking was not as crisp, but his short game shined and he led the field in putting -- converting 15 of 15 putts within 10 feet on Sunday.

"It's like Stevie was saying out there, this feels like we hadn't left," Woods said. "You just remember how to do it. It hasn't been that long for me, but you just have that feel of what to do and it's a matter of getting it done."

Woods will now take this week to prepare for the first major championship of the year at the Masters, where he will attempt to win his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship.

But those thoughts were far from his mind in the Sunday evening gloaming as hysteria enveloped him around the 18th green.

A reporter deadpanned that it was just another ho-hum day, eliciting a huge grin from the game's best player.

"I can't believe I coaxed that thing into the hole," he said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.