ORLANDO, Fla. – Tiger Woods never questioned his ability, only his health.
Woods returned to No. 1 in the world by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, not surprising except if you consider where he was a little more than a year ago. He had not won a PGA Tour in some 2½ years. He missed most of the summer and two majors in 2011 because of injuries to his left leg and Achilles tendon. He walked off the course at Doral a year ago because of tightness in the same tendon. It wasn't until June that he felt good enough to hit balls on the range after a round.
Instead of a limp, he now has a swagger.
After making three straight bogeys to end his second round at Bay Hill, he stayed on the range for close to an hour. When someone noticed his caddie walking away, Joe LaCava replied, "Going to get another bucket."
Woods was at full strength in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he looked as good as ever.
Woods never let anyone get closer than two shots in the final round Monday, and when they did, he always had an answer.
Rickie Fowler drained a 40-foot birdie putt on the 12th hole at Bay Hill to get within two shots, and Woods followed with a birdie putt from 25 feet, sweeping the putter into the air with his left arm and marching to the cup as it dropped.
Even after Fowler bowed out with a 7-iron that came up short and into the water — and another shot in the water that led to triple bogey — on the par-5 16th hole, Justin Rose was still in the picture only two shots behind. From a fairway bunker, Woods hit 8-iron from 178 yards to the middle of the green for a two-putt birdie.
And that was that.
Woods played it safe from the rough on the final hole and made bogey for a 2-under 70, giving him a two-shot win over Rose. He tied a PGA Tour record that had not been touched in 48 years. This was his eighth win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 16 appearances. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times from 1938 to 1965.
"If I get healthy, I know I can play this game at a high level," Woods said. "I know I can be where I'm contending in every event, contending in major championships and being consistent day in and day out — if I got healthy. That was the first step in the process. Once I got there, then my game turned."
It turned the corner on two wheels.
Dating to that win at Bay Hill last year — the first for Woods on the PGA Tour since September 2009 — he has won six of his last 20 starts.
Is he back?
Woods never liked that question, perhaps because he's never sure how far he's going. And in his mind, golf is a game in which a player never arrives.
"I'm getting there," Woods said. "I'm very pleased that some of the shots that I struggled with last year are now strengths. One of the things that we need to continue to work on is getting it more refined. Because my good ones are really good. Just making sure the bad ones aren't that bad — whether it's a driver, 3-wood, long iron, wedge — whatever it is, that I'm missing the ball in the correct spots. That's getting way better."
Perhaps the best measure of whether he's back is that no one else is in front of him.
Woods last was atop the world ranking in the final week of October 2010, a span of 125 weeks that represented his longest spell out of the top spot. He replaced Rory McIlroy, who has a chance to get back the No. 1 ranking this week at the Houston Open.
"It's a byproduct of hard work, patience and getting back to winning golf tournaments," Woods said.
The next step is winning majors. His next stop is Augusta National.
Woods has gone five years without winning a major, and eight years since he last won a green jacket at the Masters. He is trending in that direction with his three wins, and perhaps more significantly, with wins in his last two starts.
It had been 3½ years since Woods last won consecutive tournaments he played, the Buick Open and Bridgestone Invitational in August 2009. The last time he won consecutive starts before April was in 2001, and he won the Masters to complete his sweep of the majors.
Asked the last time he felt this good about his game going into the Masters, Woods replied, "It's been a few years."
"I'm really excited about the rest of this year," he said.
Woods fell as low as No. 58 in the world as he coped with the collapse of his marriage, a loss of sponsors and injuries to his left leg. One week after he announced he was dating Olympic ski champion Lindsey Vonn, Woods returned to the top of golf.
"Number 1 !!!!!!!!!!!!!" Vonn tweeted moments after his win.
Asked if there was any correlation to him winning right after going public with his relationship, Woods smiled and said, "You're reading way too much into this."
Like so many other victories, this one was never really close.
Fowler pulled to within two shots with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole, but after he and Woods made bogey on the 15th, Fowler went at the flag on the par-5 16th and came up a few yards short and into the water.
"I was swinging it well. I made a few putts, and trying to put a little pressure on them, let them know I was there," Fowler said. "Just would like to have that 7-iron back on 16. Just kind of a touch heavy."
Rose, who played the first two rounds with Woods, closed with a 70 to finish alone in second.
"He plays every shot like he plays them on Sunday," Rose said. "His intensity is the same on Thursday often as it is on Sunday, and that makes Sunday a lot less different for him. He plays in that kind of atmosphere far more regularly than a lot of guys do, and it's an adjustment for most of us. It's a known for him."
It was only fitting that Woods raised his putter to salute the fans as he walked off the 18th green. The club was like a magic wand this week. He dwarfed the field in putting statistics, and this might have been the most absurd of all — Woods was 19 of 28 in putts between 7 feet and 20 feet.
Players might be lining up to force Steve Stricker into full retirement for the putting tip he gave Woods at Doral.
"The three events that I've won, I've putted well," Woods said. "Stricks helped me out there at Doral and got me into position where I felt like I was now putting like I did at Torrey."
The trick now is whether he can carry that to Augusta National in two weeks.