THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – After going more than two years and 26 tournaments without a win, and after so much turmoil in his personal life and with his golf game, Tiger Woods stood over a 6-foot birdie putt Sunday to win the Chevron World Challenge and felt as though nothing had changed.
Finally, the outcome was familiar, too.
Woods poured in the putt to cap off a birdie-birdie finish at Sherwood, close with a 3-under 69 and beat former Masters champion Zach Johnson by one shot. The win ended a drought that lasted 749 days, and might have signaled a change that Woods is on his way back.
He 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.
Relief? Satisfaction? Vindication?
Woods wasn't sure, and he didn't much care.
'It just feels awesome whatever it is,' he said.
Trailing by one shot with two holes to play, Woods came up with two clutch putts. He holed a 15-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th to pull into a tie with Johnson, then hit a 9-iron from 158 yards that landed on the ridge behind the hole and rolled down to 6 feet.
'I've been in contention twice this year, which is not very often,' Woods said. 'So that's my third time with a chance to win it. I pulled it off this time.'
It was his 83rd win worldwide in tournaments that award ranking points, but his first since he won the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, 2009, back when he looked as though he would rule golf for as long as he played.
But he crashed his car into a fire hydrant outside his Florida home on Thanksgiving night, and shocking revelations of extramarital affairs began to emerge, which shattered his image, led to a divorce and cost him four major sponsors. Since then, he has changed swing coaches, caddies and endured more injuries, causing him to miss two majors and fail to make the cut in another.
Now, however, it looks clear that Woods is on an upward path.
'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.'
Even though those situations have been rare, Woods looked as though 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 his year in Abu Dhabi at the end of January.
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.'
He had a worthy adversary in Johnson, who had a one-shot lead going into the final round and trailed for only three holes. Johnson tied Woods with a birdie on the par-5 13th, made an unlikely par on the 14th by chipping from the bottom of the green, and appeared to seize control by holing a 12-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole.
Johnson thought his birdie putt on the 17th was good all the way until it burned the edge of the cup. Woods, running out of time, drained his birdie putt to force a tie and send the tournament to the 18th. Johnson missed a 15-foot birdie try, leaving the stage to Woods.
Johnson closed with a 71 and still 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.'
Woods had a four-shot lead over Graeme McDowell a year ago, a margin that evaporated quickly when Woods showed early signs of a struggle, particularly with a pair of three-putts. There was no such evidence this time.
After nearly driving into trouble to the right of the par-5 second, Woods escaped and hit wedge to 3 1/2 feet for birdie. His lone bogey on the front nine came at the par-3 eighth, with a back right pin that requires a fade. Woods tugged it well left of the green, and his pitch at a 45-degree angle was too strong and rolled into the fringe about 15 feet away.
Johnson's chip on the third was too strong, he three-putted from about 35 feet for bogey on the fifth and he played a poor chip from below the eighth green for another bogey.
They were tied at the turn when Woods began to pull away. From the right rough, Woods hit a soft sand wedge that landed in the first cut short of the green and fed down the slope to about 4 feet. He two-putted from long range for birdie on the par-5 11th to stretch his lead to two shots when Johnson caught a buried lie in the bunker.
Woods bogeyed the 12th from a bunker, though, and Johnson's birdie on the 13th set up a final hour that was up for grabs until Woods came through in the clutch on the last two holes.
Woods' tournament, which has an 18-man field, has been a good omen 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.'