Woods rolling his way toward the Masters

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Associated Press

Posted on March 11, 2013 at 9:23 AM

Updated Monday, Mar 11 at 4:06 PM

DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods had gone more than three years without a World Golf Championship. He had no trouble remembering the drill.

He sat at a table with the blue Gene Sarazen Cup trophy — he has six just like it at home — and signed a stack of flags for posterity and charity after a two-shot win that was never in question during the final two hours on the Blue Monster at Doral.

Woods entertained a few questions about his new 5-wood, how his performance stacked up with a four-shot win in January at Torrey Pines and whether he thought Rory McIlroy, now overlooked as the No. 1 player in the world, was on the right track.

"Can the Masters get here soon enough?" someone else asked.

It was the only question Woods ignored.

The Masters is a month away, and Woods hasn't looked this equipped to win another green jacket in five years.

A year ago, he hobbled off the Blue Monster and was driven away in a cart after 11 holes of the final round because of tightness in his left Achilles tendon, raising questions about his health and his immediate future.

Sunday he left Doral on his own terms and with a record that is starting to look familiar.

Woods delivered two quick birdies to end the suspense, and two late bogeys only made the Cadillac Championship look closer than it was. Woods never let anyone get closer than three shots until it no longer mattered. Despite a conservative bogey on the final hole, he closed with a 1-under 71 for a two-shot win over Steve Stricker.

He now has won five times in the last year, the most of anyone in the world.

He goes to Bay Hill in two weeks for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he is the defending champion, with a chance to go to No. 1 in the world.

And he stamped himself as the favorite at the Masters.

"That's how I know I can play," Woods said. "That's the thing. To be able to bring it out a couple times so far this year — and then be able to close and get the Ws on top of that — that's nice. Any time I can win prior to Augusta, it always feels good."

Just like Torrey Pines, it was a helpless feeling for those trying to catch him.

Graeme McDowell, who also played with Woods in the final group at Bay Hill last year, again tried to apply pressure early in the round with a two-putt birdie and a beautiful approach into 7 feet on the second hole. Woods, who had to scramble for par on the easy opening hole, sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the second.

"Graeme hits it in there stiff, I need to answer," Woods said. "It was important to make that, and basically continue it."

And that he did.

Woods hit a high cut with an 8-iron into 4 feet on the par-3 fourth hole, and he was on his way.

Stricker chipped in for birdie on the 13th hole and kept trying to make up ground until he ran out of chances, and ultimately ran out of holes. He had a 68 to finish second.

"His attitude and what I saw this week, and his belief in himself again, looks very similar to when he was in the early 2000s, or you can pick any year when he was playing great," Stricker said. "He just seems to be in a better place mentally."

Woods was in a better place on the putting green, and he can thank Stricker for that.

They were going to play a practice round on Wednesday, but when Woods arrived at Doral, he couldn't find Stricker. Only after he finished playing and headed to the practice green did they meet.

Stricker offered a valuable tip for Woods, noticing that his posture was off when he stood over putts. They spent nearly an hour on the green that Wednesday afternoon, and Woods felt as good as he did at Torrey Pines. And it showed.

He took only 100 putts for the week, the fewest of his career on the PGA Tour. He made 27 birdies, one short of his personal best.

And he finished at 19-under 269 for the 76th win of his PGA Tour career. Not only is that six away from the record 82 won by Sam Snead, it's one more than Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined.

"Thank you to Steve for the putting lesson," Woods said at the trophy presentation. "It was one of those weeks where I felt pretty good about how I was playing, made a few putts and got it rolling."

Stricker, playing a part-time schedule, picked up his second runner-up finish in just three starts. He had no regrets about offering Woods some help.

"At times you kick yourself," Stricker said with a laugh. "He's a good friend. We talk a lot about putting. It's good to see him playing well."

Asked if he would have won without that chance meeting with Stricker, Woods hedged.

"I would like to say I probably would have, but ..." he said with a smile. "I've been putting at home and it just still hadn't felt right. I still was a little bit off. ... He basically got me in the same position that I was at Torrey. So once he put me in there where I felt comfortable, I said, 'Well, this is not too foreign. This is what I was a month or so ago.' And I started rolling it and it felt really, really good."

McDowell had third place to himself until he went for the green on the 18th hole and found the water. He made double bogey, shot 72 and fell into a four-way tie for third that cost him $172,500. Phil Mickelson (71), Sergio Garcia (69) and Adam Scott (64) also tied for third.

Woods improved to 41-2 on the PGA Tour when he had the outright lead going into the final round, the last two wins with McDowell at his side. Woods last won while ahead at Bay Hill a year ago.

"The way Tiger was playing, I was always in chase mode," McDowell said. "He was always going to be a tough guy to catch. Fair play to him. He played fantastic golf the last couple of days."

McIlroy's week ended on a happy note.

Not only did he finish the tournament, he might have turned the corner with a bogey-free 65. McIlroy opened with a 7-iron into 18 feet for eagle, which he called one of the best shots he hit. He shot a 32 on the back nine for a round that surprised him considering how far away he felt when he arrived at Doral.

"Just goes to show, it's not as far away as you think," McIlroy said. "That's been one of my problems. I always think when I'm playing bad that it's further away than it is. That's just where I have to stay patient ... and know that if I put in the hard work, that the results will bear fruit. Whether that's sooner or later, it doesn't really matter."

The Masters is approaching quickly, and Woods has reason to be excited about it. For now, he cared only about his latest trophy.

"Majors and World Golf Championships are the best because you know you are playing against the best players," Woods said. "That's what makes wins like this special. That's why I love to compete."

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