One year after Tiger Woods hobbled off the Blue Monster, he picked up the pace in his march to the Masters. Woods delivered two quick birdies to take the drama out of Doral, and two late bogeys only made his victory in the Cadillac Championship seem closer than it really was.
Woods had full control of his game and never let anyone get closer than three shots until he had locked up his 17th World Golf Championship title. With a conservative bogey that didn't matter on the final hole, he closed with a 1-under 71.
For the first time in five years, Woods has two wins before the Masters.
And both of them were dominant.
"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."
And to think it was one year ago Sunday that Woods withdrew after 11 holes in the final round at Doral because of tightness in his left Achilles tendon, the same injury that had cost him to sit out most of the previous summer. It created uncertainty about his health and whether he could ever get his game back.
Woods now has five wins in the last year, the most of anyone in the world, and he can return to No. 1 with a win at Bay Hill in two weeks.
He won by two shots over Steve Stricker, who might want to claim a share of this trophy.
Woods ran into Stricker on the putting green Wednesday afternoon, and in a 45-minute session, Stricker helped him with his posture over putts. Woods left feeling as good as he did at Torrey Pines, where he won by four shots. And it showed. Woods made 27 birdies this week, one short of his personal best on the PGA Tour, and he took the fewest putts (100) over 72 holes in any tour event.
"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 closed with a 68, and 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 a little.
"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."
The Masters is a month away, and Woods is sure to be the favourite.
"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."
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, showed signs of recovering from his rough start to the season. He had a 65 and tied for eighth.
Graeme McDowell, who started the final round four shots behind, made a birdie on the opening hole, but never got any closer. 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."
Woods finished minus 19 at 269 and earned $1.5 million in winning this World Golf Championship for the seventh time.
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."
McIlroy said he won't add a tournament the next two weeks, returning at the Houston Open before going to the Masters. He is signed up for the member-guest a week from Monday at The Medalist Club, presumably as the guest of former NBA great Michael Jordan.
"He's asked me, so depending on what my schedule is and where I have to be ... we'll see," he said.
Scott had the low round of the tournament with eight birdies in his round of 64.
That's what McDowell, Mickelson and Stricker would have needed to have any chance of catching Woods. As he did early in third round, McDowell gave it his best shot, only to have Woods answer on every occasion.
McDowell two-putted for birdie on the par-5 opening hole as Woods blasted a shot from a buried lie at the back of the green well past the pin and off the green. He had to chip close just to save par. McDowell hit his approach on the second hole to 7 feet and looked as if he might pick up another shot.
In what could have been the most significant putt Woods made, he buried an 18-footer for birdie.
"It was important to make that," Woods said.
That's how it went all weekend. Woods never gave anyone a chance, and he didn't give anyone much hope. His lead was back to four shots, he hit an 8-iron to 4 feet on the par-3 fourth hole, and no one seriously challenged him the rest of the way.
Mickelson hit a 200-yard shot into the breeze and over the water to a foot for a tap-in birdie on the par-5 eighth to get within four shots with 10 holes to play. He missed far too many short putts, however, making bogey on the ninth and 11th holes to fall too far back to matter.
That allowed another easy walk up the 18th hole for Woods to collect another WGC title, another seven-figure check, and offer another reminder that he is closer than ever to getting back to the top of golf.
Woods now has won more than $24 million in the WGCs alone since the series began in 1999, winning 42 per cent of the tournaments. This was his 76th career win on tour, leaving him six short of the record 82 wins by Sam Snead. He now has more wins than Mickelson and Vijay Singh combined.