For a short time, they had hope.
They had suspense, and they had unpredictability. For about nine carefree, magical months, some of the greatest golfers in the world had a fatter share of paychecks and a greater slice of glory. And then the sun went down over Bay Hill Club & Lodge Sunday, and a lot of their good times disappeared with it.
Yes, Tiger Woods has returned.
He came back from five strokes down in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday. He came back from knee surgery, and more time off than he has ever known. Mostly, he came back from a rare place of doubt.
Woods matched the largest final-round comeback of his career when he beat Sean O'Hair with a 15-foot birdie putt a few minutes after sunset on the final hole of the tournament, giving him a victory in his third event since his comeback began.
"Serious disbelief seeing that putt go down," said Zach Johnson, who was in the final group with Woods and O'Hair. "I don't think I've ever seen him make a putt that he's had to make. And that is the epitome of sarcasm.
"He just never ceases to amaze you."
Once, it seemed sensible to wonder if we would ever see the same Tiger Woods we remembered. After all, he is older. He is 33 now, and the father of two. The knee had broken down, and the invincibility had been pierced.
And all it did was set the stage for yet another chapter of Tiger lore.
He caught O'Hair with a long birdie on No. 15, passed him with a great recovery on No. 16, let O'Hair back in when he landed in a bunker on No. 17, then finished him off with the final putt and fist pump.
Woods ran into the arms of caddie Steve Williams, who lifted him off the ground as the crowd exploded around them.
"The only question," Palmer said of the last shot, "is if it would go a little to the side instead of straight in the cup."
Three months ago, Woods had not even tested his knee with all of his clubs. He wasn't sure exactly when he could return to competition, and he had no way of knowing how long it would take to regain his edge.
Now, he is a little more than a week away from the Masters and it is hard to imagine anyone else being called the favorite.
"It feels good to be back," Woods said after winning the Bay Hill event for a sixth time. "To feel the heat on the back nine on Sunday."
Physically, he is fine. Mentally, he seems fit too. Which means all that is left is a little fine tuning for Woods, and a lot of well-earned paranoia around the PGA Tour.
For the most part, Woods' peers understand what he has meant to the tour. His presence has brought greater exposure, and bigger purses for all of them. But it must occasionally feel like playing an extra in a Tiger Woods production.
O'Hair did not make excuses for his Sunday afternoon fade. Woods, he said, played a lot better than him. Still, O'Hair did not want to characterize Woods' comeback as inevitable.
"It's not like it's the Tiger Show, and I'm just out there to watch him," O'Hair said. "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 just happens to be that good."
Which is exactly what the next few months, and years, will be about, figuring out exactly where Woods resides on golf's all-time hierarchy. It no longer appears as if the knee will keep him from resuming his chase of Jack Nicklaus and his record 18 majors. Woods is currently at 14.
What might be even more remarkable is the way Woods is dominating tournaments outside of the majors. Going back to the end of 2007, Woods has won 10 of his past 15 PGA events. He has finished second in two others.
"Certainly this win validates all the things I've been trying to do," Woods said.
As he walked out of the scoring trailer underneath the bleachers on the 18th green, he was greeted by his public relations manager, Glenn Greenspan.
"That was fun," Greenspan said.
"Not bad," Woods said.
Yup. All in a day's work for a guy on his way to being the greatest.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.
Tiger Woods' five-stroke comeback to win Sunday tied the largest of his career on the PGA Tour:
Year Tournament Strokes
2009 Arnold Palmer Invitational5*
2000Pebble Beach Pro-Am 5
1997Mercedes Championships 4
1996 Las Vegas Invitational 4
2006 Deutsche Bank Champ.3
* Made birdie on 72nd hole to win
Note: Woods won the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic after trailing by eight entering the final round, but it was not a PGA Tour event.