THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Graeme McDowell could think of no better way to head home for a 10-week holiday that to win for the first time in two years.
And he couldn't have found a better place to end the drought than Sherwood Country Club.
Even with the course playing longer than ever in a light rain, McDowell closed with a 4-under 68 on Sunday and held off Keegan Bradley with a pair of superb short-game shots that carried him to a three-shot win in the World Challenge.
It was the 10th time in 12 rounds at Sherwood that McDowell has shot in the 60s, and he extended his dominance on the course that Jack Nicklaus carved out among the foothills of Conejo Valley. In three appearances, McDowell has won twice and was runner-up.
But this one was meaningful in its own right.
'This really caps off my season,' McDowell said. 'We try not to put winning on a pedestal, but this one feels very sweet because it's been a grind all year.'
McDowell won for the first time since he beat Tiger Woods in a playoff at Sherwood to close out a dream season in 2010 that included his first major at the U.S. Open and the winning point for Europe at the Ryder Cup.
This win followed a year of frustration. He played in the final group of the U.S. Open and British Open but came up short, and he lost some enthusiasm going into tournaments late in the year. He talked all week about a 10-week break, some of it in Northern Ireland and the rest in Orlando, Fla., where he just built a new house and he's opening a tavern outside the gates of Lake Nona.
It was the perfect way to leave golf for the next few months.
Bradley, who was within one shot after a birdie on the fifth hole, closed with a 69. Bo Van Pelt had a 70 to finish third. Woods, the tournament host and five-time champion, was never in the picture. He didn't make birdie until the 13th hole and shot 71 to tie for fourth.
Bradley's birdie on the 13th hole for a two-shot swing brought him within two shots with five holes to play. McDowell never let him get any closer, however. He hit a beautiful lag putt from 75 feet just off the green at No. 14 for an easy par, then hit a chip from behind the 17th green that he was hopeful of getting within 6 feet of the cup. The ball was one turn from falling for birdie.
McDowell made a 6-foot birdie on the 18th that he didn't really need to finish on 17-under 271 and earn $1 million against the 18-man field.
And he felt as though he earned it.
A light rain fell for much of the round, as it has all week, making Sherwood play so long that McDowell had to hit a 5-wood into the par-4 fourth hole, and a 4-iron for his third shot in the par-5 fifth. His only bogey over the final 47 holes of the tournament came on the 13th hole.
'Certainly I will draw some confidence from this one,' McDowell said. 'The game hasn't given me a huge amount this year.'
Woods needed a fast start and was stuck in neutral. He failed to birdie the par 5s on the front nine and dropped a shot on the seventh hole when his flop shot below the green came out heavy. He didn't make his first birdie until the par-5 13th.
'I struggled with my game a little bit this week,' said Woods, playing for the first time in five weeks. 'I just managed myself well to get around in these conditions.'
Van Pelt opened with two birdies and tried to hang around in contention on the back nine.
But this was a duel from the start.
McDowell started with a two-shot lead and kept his distance until Bradley holed an 18-foot birdie putt on the fifth. Bradley made back-to-back bogeys at the turn to fall three shots behind, and McDowell stretched his lead to four shots by starting the back nine with two quick birdies.
The par-5 13th then set the stage for a nervous final hour.
McDowell laid up, hit a poor wedge and then three-putted for bogey, ending his streak of 41 consecutive holes at Sherwood at par or better. Bradley made a 6-foot birdie putt for a two-shot swing, and the game was on.
Thanks to some timely putts, McDowell was able to close out his first win of the year. The most important stroke might have been a putt he didn't make. From left of the 14th fairway, he had no choice but to punch it under a tree and run it up to right side of the green. From some 75 feet away, he used his putter to lag it up to inside a foot for a safe par to keep his two-shot lead.
McDowell made a 10-foot on the 16th to match Bradley's tap-in birdie, and then he effectively closed out the former PGA champion with a deft chip from behind the 17th green, where the shot went from rough to the first cut, trickled onto the fringe and rolled out to the edge of the cup.
'My heart was in my mouth for a millisecond,' McDowell said.