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Tiger finally back in winner’s circle

ORLANDO, Fla. — His ball safely over the water, Tiger Woods walked toward the 18th green as he had done over the last 30 months on the PGA Tour, with one big difference.

There was no mistaking that smile.

“Pure joy,” he said.

Woods finally brought the buzz back to the very thing that made him famous — winning.

Two weeks after another injury scare, Woods looked dominant as ever in that bright red shirt to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday. It was his first PGA Tour victory since a sex scandal at the end of 2009 led to one of the greatest downfalls in sports.

And with the Masters only two weeks away, Woods looks more capable than ever of resuming his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus in the majors.

Woods closed with a 2-under 70 and won by five strokes over Graeme McDowell.

“I think he really just kind of nailed home his comeback,” McDowell said. “Great to have a front-row seat watching maybe the greatest of all time doing what he does best — winning golf tournaments.”

Woods had gone 923 days and 27 tour events since he last posed with a trophy, and it showed.

Kneeling to look at his line as he waited his turn to putt on the 18th, Woods tapped his putter on the ground and could barely contain a grin, knowing the longest PGA Tour drought of his career was about to end. When he tapped in for par, he clenched his fist, screamed out, “Yeah!” and hugged his caddie, Joe LaCava.

Walking off the green, Woods extended his black cap for a sweeping wave toward the gallery.

“It’s not like winning a major championship or anything,” Woods said. “But it certainly feels really good.”

The question two weeks ago was when he could play again. Now, it’s whether he can get back to being the player who once ruled golf. It was the 16th time Woods has won by at least five shots, and it was the largest margin of victory by any player on the PGA Tour since Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open by eight.

Woods downplayed the significance of Sunday, pointing out more than once that he considers it his second win since the scandal. He counts the Chevron World Challenge last December, when he went birdie-birdie to beat an 18-man field of top-50 players.

But this was significant — a PGA Tour event with a full field, and a strong field at that. And with a performance so clean that he was never seriously challenged on the back nine.

“I’ve gotten better, and that’s the main thing,” Woods said. “I’ve been close for a number of tournaments now. And it was just a matter of staying the course and staying patient, keeping working on fine-tuning what we’re doing. And here we are.”

The only thing missing was the host himself.

Palmer’s blood pressure increased during the final round from new medications, and he was taken to the hospital about 15 minutes before the tournament ended as a precaution. Alaistair Johnston, vice chairman at IMG and his longtime business manager, said Palmer would be kept overnight. “Nobody is overly concerned,” he said.

With the victory, Woods climbs to No. 6 in the world, returning to the top 10 for the first time since May 22.

“Heading home now and I can’t stop smiling. Thanks to Otown fans and everyone watching for all the love. Get well soon, Arnie,” Woods tweeted about three hours afterward.

He finished at 13-under 275 for his 72nd PGA Tour win, one short of Nicklaus for second place on the career list. But that’s not the record Woods wants. He has 14 majors, four short of the Nicklaus standard, and he’ll try to end a four-year drought at the Masters, which starts April 5.

“I am excited, no doubt,” Woods said. “I’m looking forward to the momentum I’ve built here.”

It was the first time Woods had all four rounds under par since he returned from his personal crisis at the 2010 Masters.

McDowell made a 45-foot birdie putt and a 50-foot eagle putt early in the round to try to stay close, though he was never closer than two shots after starting with a double bogey. He closed with a 74.

Ernie Els failed in his bid to get into the Masters. The three-time major champion started the final round three shots behind, but twice missed par putts inside 3 feet and shot 75. He would have needed a two-way tie for second to crack the top 50 in the world. Instead, he tied for fourth and moved up only four spots to No. 58. He will have to win the Houston Open this week to avoid missing the Masters for the first time since 1993.

This day belonged to Woods, as it used to at Arnie’s place.

Only two weeks ago, Woods was taken off the course at Doral in the middle of the final round with tightness in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that caused him to miss three months last year, including two majors. It turned out to be a mild strain.

Woods’ injuries have received more attention in the last year than the personal life crisis that cost him his marriage and corporate support. But in the last week, former coach Hank Haney’s book — “The Big Miss” — was mailed to various media outlets, another distraction for Woods. The book goes on sale today.

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