ORLANDO, Florida: Tiger Woods has reclaimed the world number one spot for the first time since his career was derailed by a sex scandal and a string of injuries.
Woods’ victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational saw the 37-year-old replace Rory McIlroy atop the rankings in the latest milestone of his comeback from a spectacular fall from personal and professional grace.
“I play well here,” said Woods, who secured his eighth victory at Bay Hill with after a closing round of two-under 70. “That is about as simple as it gets. It is a by-product of hard work and patience.”
It took an extra day, but Woods out-dueled fellow American Rickie Fowler down the stretch, winning the $6.2 million event by two strokes.
Woods, who pocketed $1.08 million for Monday’s win, has won 14 majors in his career and had previously spent a record 623 weeks on top of the world.
But he has not led the rankings for nearly three years, after injuries and an infamous scandal saw him stumble. Woods fell to his lowest rank on November 11, 2011 when he dropped to 58th in the world.
His woes began in 2009 when a US tabloid aired claims he had had an affair with a nightclub manageress. Two days later, amid speculation about his marriage, he was slightly injured when he crashed his car near his home.
In December of that year, Woods issued two statements admitting to serial marital infidelity and announced he would take a break from golf. He later said that he had undergone therapy to help him change his behavior.
He returned to golf at the 2010 Masters in April, but his marriage was over and his divorce with former model Elin Nordegren was granted in August. His game had clearly suffered during the turmoil and his return to the top took three years.
“The first step in the process was getting healthy. Once I got there, then my game turned,” Woods said. “I’ve won six times on the tour the last couple years. That’s not bad.”
Last week, Woods announced that he was dating US ski racer Lindsey Vonn.
“Number 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!” Vonn tweeted after Woods’ victory.
Woods also claimed his 77th PGA Tour victory – his 99th professional victory – in his final tune-up event for next month’s Masters.
The Monday finish followed a severe thunder storm on Sunday that postponed the fourth round. The storm swept across the Bay Hill Club & Lodge course with gusting winds toppling trees and television towers.
Woods and playing partner Fowler began on the third hole Monday and Woods quickly set the tone with birdies on a pair of par-fives.
He finished on 18 with a bogey but it was enough to reach 13-under 275, giving him the win and propelling him the Number One spot for the first time since October 2010.
“I am getting back to winning golf tournaments,” Woods said. “I won some golf tournaments the last couple years so consequently I moved up.”
Runner-up Justin Rose fired a two-under 70 to finish at 11-under while Fowler stumbled down the stretch, closing with a one-over 73 as he plummeted to a four-way tie for third at eight-under 280.
Fowler finished alongside Mark Wilson (71), Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (72) and Keegan Bradley (71).
“I was swinging it well, I made a few putts, and trying to put a little pressure on him, let him know I was there,” Fowler said.
Woods, who has won six times in his last 20 tournaments, attributes his recent success to learning how to juggle his family life with golf.
“It was a lot easier to work on the game and make all those changes when I was younger,” he said Monday. “Having family responsibilities changes things. Trying to find the time to do it tests your time-management skills.
“I had to work differently. It was going to have to be done in short bursts. But I wouldn’t trade it. My two little ones are the most important thing in my life.”
Woods has now won 51 times in 55 tries when holding the lead entering the final round and is five wins shy of matching Sam Snead’s all-time record on the PGA Tour.
He and Snead are also the only players to win the same tournament eight times with Snead doing it at the Greater Greensboro Open.