Orlando, Florida: A few miles from Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Tiger Woods ran into a fire hydrant, and out gushed sordid details of his private life. Two years later, in November 2011, he reached rock bottom in his professional life, dropping to No. 58 in the world rankings.
Gilded to gilded, gold dust to gold dust, Woods returned to golf's zenith, not far from where he plunged from grace, with a victory Monday at the weather-delayed Arnold Palmer Invitational. Completing the final 16 holes of his fourth round, Woods carded a two-under 70 to win by two strokes and overtake the world No. 1, Rory McIlroy, who skipped the event but is to return to action this week in Houston.
"What can you say?" said Palmer, 83, who collected 62 PGA Tour titles, 15 fewer than Woods. "Unbelievable performance for him. He's been playing good all his life and he showed it again today."
Woods finished at 13-under 275 for his first back-to-back wins since 2009. His nearest challenger was the Englishman Justin Rose (70), who shares a swing coach, Sean Foley, with Woods. Rickie Fowler, who was paired with Woods in the final group, was two strokes behind after 15 holes but made a triple-bogey 8 at 16 on his way to a 73. He finished in a four-way tie for third at eight under with Keegan Bradley (71), Mark Wilson (71) and the Spaniard Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño (72).
"I play well here, and that's as simple as it gets," Woods said.
With the victory, his third of the season and his second of the monthlong Florida swing, Woods supplanted the star of the West Coast swing, Brandt Snedeker, who had a win, two seconds and a third, as the prohibitive favorite at the Masters, which begins April 11. Four of Woods's 14 major titles have come at Augusta National, where he last won in 2005.
"It feels good to know that all the hard work has paid off to get me to this point," said Woods, who posted three eagles at Bay Hill, one fewer than he had in all of 2012.
Three times, in 2000, 2003 and 2008, Woods won events before the Masters, including Palmer's tournament. But there can be no comparing him then with him now. In 2000 and 2003, he was not married, much less divorced with joint custody of two small children. In 2008, knee injuries forced him off the tour for eight months. Those were the days when Woods's world was neatly compartmentalized, his focus fully on whatever challenges presented themselves between the gallery ropes.
His margin of victory in 2003 was 11 strokes over Stewart Cink, Brad Faxon, Kenny Perry and Kirk Triplett. There is no comparing the competition then and now. The talent pool is deeper, the fields strengthened by a younger generation inspired by Woods to master the sport and replete with games patterned after Woods's.
It was hardly a surprise that two of the tour's fresh faces, Fowler, 24, and Bradley, 26, were among those applying the heat on Woods. Fowler was 8 years old in June 1997 when Woods first reached No. 1, where he stayed for 623 nonconsecutive weeks.
Injuries and off-course issues punctured Woods's aura of invincibility in recent years. Fowler and Bradley joined the tour after Woods's last major victory, at the 2008 United States Open, so they have never had their psyches bruised by battling Woods at his best. They have absorbed Woods's strengths but not many of his beatings.
Bubba Watson, the reigning Masters champion, whose 67 on Sunday stood up as the lowest final-round score, called Woods "the greatest golfer ever."
Watson said: "But you have to remember, the competition is better. Since he hurt himself, there are younger kids coming up. There are people coming over here and playing more. The whole world is growing, and they know how to train and how to practice because they've been watching him. So everyone knows how to get better at the game."
After watching Woods secure a sixth official tour victory in his past 20 stroke-play starts dating to this event last year, the next generation can sense that its coronation has been put off indefinitely.
"This is the Tiger that I grew up watching," Bradley said.
The golfers Woods, 37, is chasing now include the game's best players. He passed Jack Nicklaus on the career victory list last year with his 74th title, and his eight wins at Bay Hill match the record-setting victory total of Sam Snead in Greensboro, N.C. Snead won for the first time there in 1938 and for the last time in 1965. Woods is also five titles from equaling Snead's career victory total of 82.
"Sam did it for — what? — almost 30 years," Woods said. "Well into his early 50s, he won. So it speaks to being consistent and just being there. To pass Jack last year, and I'm not that far from Sam, it hasn't been easy. But also then again, over the course of time, I've put myself there so many times that I'd hope I'd cash in a few times along the way."
Before entering the interview tent to meet with reporters, Woods lingered outside and scrolled through the texts on his smartphone. He could have stood there until nightfall and not thumbed replies to all the messages left by well-wishers.
It made him feel good, he said, which raised a question: when was the last time his game and his life have felt so in sync heading into the year's first major?
Woods said, "It's been a few years."