By Steve Keating
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - With two wins in his last four starts Tiger Woods appears to have found his groove, found a new girlfriend and by the end of the week could find himself back at the top of the world golf rankings.
Certainly Woods heads into Thursday's start of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a little extra-spring to his step, fresh off a victory at the WGC-Cadillac championship and playing on a Bay Hill layout that has been a happy hunting ground for the 14-times major winner.
Seven times, including last year, Woods has triumphed at "Arnie's Place" and one more victory on Sunday would match Sam Snead's PGA Tour record for most wins in a single event.
But despite being back in near peak form, it is Woods' personal life that is once again in the headlines after confirming he and alpine World Cup ski sensation Lindsey Vonn are happily dating.
"We're very happy where we are at but also we wanted to limit the stalk-a-rassi and all those sleazy websites that are out there following us," Woods told reporters on Wednesday in explaining the reasons behind his surprise announcement this week. "We basically devalued the first photos. Unfortunately that's just the way it is in our society right now."
Following Woods' tumultuous fall from grace, the stars seem to be aligning as he rebuilds his life and image after the scandalous and very public breakup of his marriage.
Having already supplanted Rory McIlroy and his tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki as the sporting world's power couple, Woods could also nudge the Northern Irishman out of top spot in the rankings on Sunday.
After a staggering 623 total weeks (including streaks of 264 and 281 consecutive) as number one, Woods has not sat atop the rankings for 29 months, a barren stretch that included two-and-a-half years without a PGA Tour win.
With his personal life in order and his swing overhaul almost complete, a buoyant Woods has set himself a lofty goal.
"I don't want to become as good as I was, I want to be better," declared Woods. "To get back to number one I need to win this week. Not too complicated.
"I don't think people realize how hard it is to become number one in the world."
While getting to number one may be hard work, Woods has made winning at Bay Hill look easy.
He won four straight Invitationals from 2000 to 2003 and claimed back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 but his most important victory came last year when he ended his PGA Tour trophy drought.
It marked a turning point for Woods, who has gone on to win four more times since his Bay Hill breakthrough, bringing his career total to 76 PGA Tour wins.
"Arnold Palmer has been great over the years to, not just myself, but to all the players out here," said Woods. "Anytime you can come back and support what he is doing it is very special to us."
While Woods' game is on the rise, McIlroy has struggled following an equipment switch, a run of poor form and questions about his own relationship.
The Northern Irishman was roundly criticized earlier this month when he controversially walked off mid-round at the Honda Classic and was under scrutiny again on Wednesday for his decision to skip Bay Hill and use next week's Houston Open as his Masters tuneup.
Many golfers, including Woods, view the Arnold Palmer Invitational as a sort of golfing pilgrimage to honor "the King", Palmer himself admitting he was surprised with McIlroy's decision to skip his event.
"Frankly, I thought he was going to play," said Palmer. "I was as surprised as a lot of people when he decided he was not going to play."
Even without McIlroy's presence, Woods will not lack for competition this week with 13 of the world's top 20 in the field, including number five Justin Rose and number 10 Phil Mickelson.
The tournament will also mark the return of FedExCup champion and points leader Brandt Snedeker, who has been sidelined for five weeks with a rib injury.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)