By The Associated Press
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — The birdie putt on the final hole to win. The sweeping fist pump. The red shirt.
It all looked so familiar Sunday afternoon in the Chevron World Challenge, where Tiger Woods ended a drought that once would have seemed inconceivable. He went 749 days and 26 tournaments without winning as he tried to repair his image, his personal life and a golf game that used to be the best in the world.
When the final birdie putt from 6 feet disappeared into the cup, Woods swept his arm across the air, yelled through the din of the gallery and slammed his fist in a celebration that was a long time coming.
He birdied the last two holes for a 3-under 69 and won against an 18-man field at Sherwood Country Club. It was a two-man race against former Masters champion Zach Johnson over the final hour. Even so, winning is all that ever mattered to Woods – now perhaps more than ever before.
“Any different?” Woods asked about his win. “It feels great. Kind of hard for me to elaborate beyond that. I know it’s been awhile, but for some reason, it feels like it hasn’t. As far as making the putt and the feeling afterward, I think I was screaming something. But it was just that I won the golf tournament. I pulled it off with one down, two to go.
“To go birdie-birdie is as good as it gets.”
The last time Woods won was Nov. 15, 2009, at the Australian Masters for his 82nd title worldwide, and his seventh win that year, back when winning at least looked routine for him. Twelve days later, Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home, and stunning revelations of extramarital affairs soon emerged. It cost him his impeccable image, his marriage and four major sponsors.
He has added three sponsors in the last five months. He showed signs of coming back with nine solid rounds in the wind in Australia, finishing third at the Australian Open and delivering the clinching point for the Americans in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
It wasn’t clear if Woods was elated or relieved, whether he felt satisfied or vindicated.
It didn’t really matter to him.
“It just feels awesome, whatever it is,” he said.
A two-shot lead on the back nine had turned into a one-shot deficit as Woods faced a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole. He thought Johnson’s birdie putt was going in until it stayed just high of the hole. Woods adjusted his line ever so slightly and drained the putt to pull even going to the 18th.
From 158 yards in the middle of the fairway, Woods hit 9-iron that landed on the slope and rolled down to easy birdie range.
If this win felt different than the last one, Woods wasn’t saying.
“They all feel good,” he said. “They’re not easy. People don’t realize how hard it is to win golf tournaments. I’ve gone on streaks where I’ve won golf tournaments in a row, but still … I don’t think I’ve taken it for granted. And I know because of how hard it is.”
Johnson had done just about everything right on the back nine – a tough birdie putt on the 13th to tie for the lead, a spectacular pitch from the putting surface, over a ridge to 4 feet to escape with par, and a 12-foot birdie on the 16th to take the lead.
He had a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th that never had a chance, and stood to the side watching a familiar sight – Woods making clutch shots at the end of a tournament to win.
“If the man is healthy, that’s paramount,” Johnson said. “I mean, he’s the most experienced and the best player I’ve ever played with. In every situation, he knows how to execute and win.”
Although those situations have been rare of late, Woods looked as if he had not forgotten how to win. The only other times he has been in contention this year were the Masters and the Australian Open.
“I felt normal, felt very comfortable,” Woods said. “I’ve been here so many times that, you know, I just feel very comfortable being here in this position. Was I nervous? Absolutely. Always nervous in that position. But it’s a comfortable feeling, and I enjoy being in that position. For some reason, it’s kind of a comfort to be in there with a chance to win.”
Woods won the Chevron World Challenge, which he hosts for his foundation, for the fifth time. He finished at 10-under 278 and donated the $1.2 million to his foundation.
The win moved him from No. 52 to No. 21 in the world ranking, and likely will send expectations soaring for 2012. Woods will not play again until starting next season in Abu Dhabi at the end of January.
There were similar expectations last year, even though Woods blew a four-shot lead in the final round at Sherwood and lost in a playoff to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. Woods said that was more smoke and mirrors. He only had one shot back then, and took the lead because he made a bunch of putts.
Is there reason for expectations now?
“I think there’s always expectations,” Woods said. “So be it.”
Johnson closed with a 71 and took home $650,000 for the holidays. Paul Casey, who opened with a 79, had his third straight round in the 60s to finish alone in third at 5 under.
“Tiger can have a long career,” Casey said when he finished. “We might look back in another 10 years and actually forget about the last couple of years.”
These last two years are starting to feel like a blur for Woods, this year in particular. He never looked as low as he did when he hobbled off the TPC Sawgrass, withdrawing from The Players Championship after a 42 on the front nine because of leg injuries that ultimately kept him out of competition for three months, including two majors.
Then he missed the cut at the PGA Championship and failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
But his peers noticed a difference about the way his game was coming together in Australia, and it appears to be going in only one direction as Woods headed home to Florida.
“Last year I played with him here the first round and I thought, `Wow, this guy is back,'” Steve Stricker said. “You could tell this time around, he’s got even more confidence, more game. He feels even better about the direction he’s headed.”
Woods’ tournament has been a good stepping stone for others over the years. The most recent example was Jim Furyk, who won in 2009 and then had his first three-win season the next year and captured the FedEx Cup.
No one ever imagined Woods needing a boost, but that might be the case.
“I don’t think we’re going to see another 2011, if that makes sense,” Furyk said, alluding to Woods failing to reach the FedEx Cup playoffs this year. “If he steadily progresses, keeps getting confidence and moving forward, he’s going to return and be one of the best players in the game again.”