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Tiger's win revives golf

ORLANDO, Fla. - Tiger Woods was down to his last shot at Bay Hill, tied for the lead as he measured a 15-foot birdie putt. That's when he heard a lone voice among thousands of people packed into the grandstand behind the 18th green.

'Some guy yelled out, 'Playoff,' Woods said with a smile.

What was the guy thinking?

Maybe he missed the Arnold Palmer Invitational the two times Woods made a 25-foot birdie putt on the last hole to win. Perhaps it was his first time to see the world's No. 1 player, and he wasn't aware that Woods has been making big putts like this since he was a teenager.

It could be that Woods had been out of golf so long, the man simply wanted to see more of him.

Woods knew the putt was going in when it was a few feet from the hole. He crouched and began to backpedal, then planted on his left knee - more proof the knee is stronger than ever - to wind up and pound his fist like a sledge hammer.

The putt capped a dramatic final hour at Bay Hill that ended in near darkness and reminded golf what it had been missing during Woods' eight-month absence while recovering from surgery.

'It's just about being there and somehow timing it right, and making putts at the right time, and pulling off shots at the right time,' Woods said. 'We're all trying to do it.'

As usual, the timing could not have been better.

Because of a two-hour rain delay, the final round did not start until just before 3 p.m., and NBC Sports decided to stay on through the conclusion, stretching the broadcast into prime time.

The last time golf was in prime time on a network? The U.S. Open, when Woods birdied the last hole to force a playoff.

The overnight rating for Bay Hill - a 4.9 with a 10 share - was the highest for any golf tournament since the U.S. Open. It even topped the two majors last summer that Woods didn't play. The rating peaked at 7.8 for the final 30 minutes, when Woods took the outright lead for the first time in 286 days, gave it right back with a bogey, then made his final birdie for the one-shot victory.

There have been some significant moments in golf since Woods had surgery after the U.S. Open.

Padraig Harrington won consecutive majors at Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills. Anthony Kim emerged as a rising star. The Americans won the Ryder Cup. Phil Mickelson rediscovered his game just in time to greet Woods' return.

Even so, nothing makes golf as compelling as Woods winning, especially with some back-nine theatrics on display at Bay Hill.

Sean O'Hair could only watch.

He lost a five-shot lead at the start of the day and wound up in the company of others whom Woods has beaten with clutch putts.

Ernie Els felt like swimming home to South Africa after Woods dropped in a 40-foot birdie putt to win a playoff at Kapalua.

Who can forget Chris DiMarco, crouched on the side of the 18th green at Augusta National, looked up at Woods and down at his feet, almost afraid to watch as Woods made a 15-foot birdie to win a playoff.

Rocco Mediate was in the scoring trailer when Woods bounced in a birdie putt at Torrey Pines to force a playoff at the U.S. Open. Ditto for Bart Bryant last year at Bay Hill when Woods made a 25-foot putt on the last hole for a one-shot victory.

O'Hair, who had missed a 40-foot attempt moments earlier, was torn between that sinking feeling of Woods about to deliver another highlight, and preparing himself for a playoff in the rare case that Woods missed.

'I'm trying to compete against Tiger,' O'Hair said.

'It's not like it's 'The Tiger Show' and I'm just out there to watch him. And I think that's the one thing the media thinks about the guys out here, and it's not about that.

'We're trying to win golf tournaments,' he said. 'And he just happens to be that good.'

Woods doesn't make them all. He couldn't make anything in the final round of the Masters the last two years when he finished second to Zach Johnson, then Trevor Immelman. He had the second-longest PGA Tour winning streak (seven events) until he missed a 4-foot par against Nick O'Hern in match play, and lost on the next hole.

The most memorable miss was that 15-foot par putt in 2005 at the Byron Nelson Championship, which ended his record PGA Tour cut streak that had stretched over seven years and 142 tournaments.

Even so, there is a mythical quality about Woods that makes so many people watch.

It took him winning a tournament - in his third event since returning from knee surgery - for golf to get back on the front of sports pages. Again, the timing could not have been better with the Masters two weeks away.

'As I look back at my three tournaments I've played this year, I've gotten better at each one,' Woods said. 'And that was the whole idea, to keep progressing to Augusta.'

Woods began the week by hosting a breakfast for a dozen or so CEOs from companies that are PGA Tour title sponsors, quelling talk that the world's No. 1 player was not doing his part to reach out to the folks footing most of the bill.

But he showed at Bay Hill that the best thing he can do for the PGA Tour is to win.