THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – It’s December.
The time for Tour types to wind down, or retool, children to shape up or suffer the consequences and a hyperventilating golf public to reach for the brown bag of reason.
Yes, Tiger Woods is one stroke back at his own Chevron World Challenge through three days of Santa Ana insanity. Sure he’s fresh off an Australian fortnight that left plenty of room for optimism. It’s just the intoxicating combination of renewed health and budding confidence in a new swing has left many tipsy from expectation.
As a rule, Tour types don’t do expectations. It is the ugly cousin of self-doubt to the sports psychologist and competitive kryptonite for those who play for a paycheck. But Woods’ scorching run through early winter has many declaring mission accomplished.
“I don’t like expectations, but if you had expectations for anyone you’re going to have them with him,” said Zach Johnson, who will begin Sunday’s final lap at Sherwood Country Club a shot clear thanks to a 7-iron approach shot at the last on Saturday that didn’t stop rolling until it was in the bottom of the cup.
Without question there is reason to be optimistic, maybe even unrealistically so. A win for Woods on Sunday would end a two-year, 26-tournament drought and be the best evidence to date that swing, mind and body are becoming one.
What it wouldn’t be is the finish line. With all due respect to the Chevron and those who toil to produce the best 18-man event in golf it is still the silly season. His fifth Chevron title would be rewarding on many levels for Woods, but don’t confuse progress for perfection. The level of hyperbole that has gripped Sherwood is something just south of a major championship.
Early Saturday a scruffy-looking type braved the cold wind on the approach to Sherwood holding a handmade sign: “Need tickets.” It is the type of scene one expects along Washington Road in spring, not Westlake Boulevard in winter.
Satellite trucks have been prepositioned and more reporters dispatched in anticipation of “the moment,” and not even two bogeys over his last six holes on Saturday could quiet the frenzied crowds.
For Woods to get off the schneid here would be fitting but deep down even the host knows it would be a step forward, not a giant leap. Those bounds will come next year at Abu Dhabi and Augusta National and the Olympic Club for the U.S. Open.
Woods also knows these are no longer the formalities they used to be.
Last time he held a 54-hole lead was at Sherwood last year, when he began the final loop four clear of Graeme McDowell, opened Sunday bogey-birdie-bogey, slipped into a playoff with a double bogey at the 13th hole and blinked in overtime.
The Sean Foley-rebuilt swing is solid, but there are still moments of uncertainty – particularly when the Santa Ana winds begin wafting from every direction.
Nor is Woods making the most of the par 5s, low-hanging fruit for him before 2009. For 11 of his first 13 seasons Woods led the Tour in par-5 scoring average, but has slipped to 35th and 121st, respectively, the last two years and his 4.59 average this season is his highest.
Through 15 par 5s this week at Sherwood he’s posted a 4.6 scoring average, and that includes two eagles on Friday. Fields no longer spot him a stroke a side like they once did.
As is custom, Woods eschewed the potential significance of Sunday victory, instead staking his claim to the competitive high ground and leaving the exaggerated expectations to fans and media.
“I like (wins), that’s why I play the game,” Woods said simply following his third-round 73 that left him at 7 under.
Johnson watched much of last month’s Presidents Cup and was, like most who braved the early morning telecast, impressed with Woods’ play at Royal Melbourne.
“To me it looked like all facets of his game were on. Cups bring out any weaknesses you may have and it didn’t look like he had many,” Johnson said. “He’s obviously really, really close again . . . I hope so.”
Most do because comeback stories are universal. But like most things Tiger a potential Chevron victory has been mutated into something greater than the sum of its parts. If he wins on Sunday it will be a refreshing step, not a final solution.
It is, after all, December.
Follow the Chevron World Challenge on Golf Channel and NBC. Airtimes: Golf Channel, 1-3 PM ET Sunday. NBC, 3-6 PM and 8:30-11:30 PM ET Sunday.