Tiger regains slice of past glory

ORLANDO -- Even before Tiger Woods nudged his final putt into the cup, caddie Joe LaCava stood on the fringe of the 18th green and removed the Arnold Palmer Invitational flag from its home. Then he rolled it up like a poster and stuck it in his right back pocket.

"He gets the trophy," LaCava said, referring to Woods. "I get the flag."

Woods got more than that. He received a greenside victory handshake and neck grasp from a laughing Palmer. He got a check for $1.116 million, an eighth blue blazer and pole-vaulted over Rory McIlroy to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking for the first time since Oct. 31, 2010.

Congratulatory text messages -- about 30 in the few moments he had to check -- poured into his cell phone Monday afternoon. McIlroy hadn't checked in yet, but it was early.

"It feels good right now," said Woods.

It should. Woods has gone from the planet's most dominating player, to a Jay Leno punch line, and back to a place that more than a few critics never thought he'd be again: No. 1 in the world.

This was his third victory of the year, his sixth in the past 53 weeks. And he's running out of hangers in his closet for the Palmer sportcoats.

So decisive was this latest win that Woods would have had to 4-putt from two inches to lose the rain-delayed tournament. He led by 2 to start the day and ended it with the same margin.

There wasn't much drama, which is just like the old days. Woods would suck the blood out of the rest of the field and cruise home. He had the last-day lead at Bay Hill and earlier in the year at Torrey Pines and Doral -- and never lost it.

And just like the old days, Woods will arrive at Augusta National early next month as the guy most likely to succeed.

"Yeah, he's the favorite," said Justin Rose, who finished second at Bay Hill. "He's going to be hard to beat."

It isn't just that Woods is winning tournaments again, it's how he's winning them. Decisively. Confidently. Even boringly.

"I'm getting there," said Woods.

Those should be terrifying words for tournament fields everywhere. Because by his own calculations, Woods said it's been "years" since he's hit the ball this well and this consistently. Plus, ever since his buddy Steve Stricker gave him a putting lesson at Doral, the cup seems like it's the size of SeaWorld. And his short game is this close to the perfection zone.

"I've turned some of the weaknesses that I had last year into strengths," said Woods.

That's one way of saying it. Another way is how LaCava put it after Woods recorded his 77th career victory.

"If you're paying attention, you're going to look over your shoulder a little bit," LaCava said. "That makes sense, right? I'm not trying to be cocky, but you've got to figure he's the guy to beat."

Players were looking over their shoulders Monday. Rose admitted that he couldn't afford to pick his spots to fire at pins, not with this 2013 version of Woods in the lead.

"I was trying to birdie every hole," Rose said. "He can force you into that."

Rickie Fowler trailed by two strokes as he stood in the middle of the fairway after his drive on the par-5 16th hole. Meanwhile, Woods was stuck in a fairway bunker.

"Seven iron," said Fowler. "Had a perfect club."

Instead, he went swimming with his second shot. Penalty stroke, then drop. Then he dunked another in the greenside pond. By the time he was finished, Fowler recorded an 8. Woods birdied the hole.

"That's kind of the mistakes that you sometimes can be pressed into making," said Rose, who saw Fowler's triple-bogey on the board.

"Yeah, he's a tough competitor," said Fowler.

Woods knows how to count. He knows he's 37. He knows he's four wins short of tying Jack Nicklaus' major championship record. He knows he's five wins short of tying Sam Snead's record for PGA Tour victories.

The last time he won a major was in 2008. And the last time he won at Augusta National was in 2005.

But how can we look at his body of work in the past 12-plus months and not think he's in a golf happy place? Everything points toward Bubba Watson helping Woods slip on a Masters green jacket.

This was his last tournament before the Masters. He's playing in the silly Tavistock Cup on Tuesday, then taking a few days off, then working on the specific shots he'll need at Augusta. Asked when he last felt this good about his game, Woods didn't hesitate.

"It's been a few years," he said.

Woods had a good day Monday. By the looks of it, he's going to have a lot more.