ORLANDO, Fla. — On consecutive Sundays, just a handful of tournaments into his comeback, Tiger Woods found himself just a shot back of the lead as he played the final holes.
That will be among the positives he takes out of his recent golf on what ultimately was a frustrating final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational for Woods, who ended up eight strokes back of winner Rory McIlroy.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” Woods said after a final-round 69 left him in a tie for fifth. “I’m extremely pleased.”
Woods, 42, who will now get ready for the Masters, pulled within one of the leaders over the back nine at the Bay Hill Club when he birdied the 10th, 12th and 13th holes, having played the front side in 2 under. He saved par from in front of the green at the 14th, then had a birdie putt at the 15th from 20 feet to tie that stopped outside the cup.
Needing a big finish, Woods was unable to produce. His tee shot at the par-5 16th sailed out of bounds to the left — he had birdied the hole each of the first three days — and the momentum was gone.
“I wasn’t committed to what I was going to do,” Woods said. “If I hit a driver, I have to fit it with a cut. Back of my mind, I said, ‘Why don’t you just bomb it over the top?’ It’s only like 320 [yards] to carry, and as hot as it is, the ball’s flying. Or just hit a 3-wood straight away, don’t do anything. It’s going to go 310, 315 as hot as it right now, and that’s going to leave me an 8-iron.
“And so in the back of my mind I’m running through these different scenarios, and it’s on me. I didn’t commit to either one of those three shots, and I hit a poor one.”
Woods hit driver — he also hit a wayward driver on the 9th hole, leading to his only other bogey — then nailed the same club 358 yards into the fairway after having to reload.
And all the air left the huge gallery following Woods. Deflated, he also bogeyed the 17th before a nice par save at the 18th helped him shoot his 10th consecutive round of par or better on the PGA Tour.
Last week at the Valspar Championship, Woods shot all four rounds under par and finished a shot behind winner Paul Casey, coming up short with a birdie putt to tie on the last hole.
“If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” he said. “Everything was an unknown. I didn’t know what I was going to feel like, what I was going to do, what swing I was going to make.
“Especially Torrey Pines [the Farmers Insurance Open], was the rough going to be the same pain I was going to feel like I felt last year? I don’t know. But coming through that, I’ve gotten a little better, a little bit sharper, and I worked my way up there into the leaderboard back-to-back weeks and had a chance, which is nice.”
As it turned out, McIlroy’s final-round 64 would have made it impossible for Woods to win. Had he birdied the 16th and parred in to finish 16 under, he would still have been 5 strokes shy of the winner.
Woods congratulated McIlroy in a tweet Sunday evening, adding that it has been a “great two weeks.”
It was a great two weeks of being in contention again. I feel like I’m getting a little better. Great playing by Rory today to win at the King’s place. Arnie would have been proud of golf today and the charges!!!
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) March 19, 2018
Woods has plenty to build on — and plenty to work on — as the Masters approaches in just over two weeks. He was just 71st in the field in strokes gained off the tee but was second in strokes gained around the green. For the week, he converted 19 of 27 save opportunities to tie for 11th. He was also eighth in strokes gained putting.
But while he averaged 306.7 yards off the tee, he hit just 34 of 56 fairways and saw his driver let him down twice Sunday.
“If I can play with no pain and I can feel like I can make golf swings, I’ll figure it out,” said Woods, who has now played 18 rounds this year. “I’m starting to piece it together tournament by tournament, and each tournament’s gotten a little crisper and a little bit better.”
Woods tied for 23rd at the Farmers, missed the cut at the Genesis Open, finished 12th at the Honda Classic, tied for second at the Valspar Championship and has now tied for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Last year, before he resumed his comeback at the Hero World Challenge, Woods was ranked 1,199th. He is projected to move to 105th after starting the week at 149th. He has also moved up to 35th in the FedEx Standings, which have a big impact on various tournament exemptions and the FedEx Cup playoffs down the road. He has also shot 10 consecutive rounds at par or better.
Woods said he will take some time to assess his game and plans to visit Augusta National prior to Masters week. He hasn’t played the tournament since he tied for 17th in 2015. A four-time Masters winner, his last victory there was in 2005.