THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – This one was over. Dead and buried. Change the channel and check the agate later, just to see the winning margin.
Tiger Woods led by four strokes with eight holes remaining in the final round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, which is golf’s equivalent to the victory formation in football. Maybe he’d add another birdie or two down the stretch and win by five or six for good measure; maybe Zach Johnson, his playing partner and closest pursuer, would show a little grit and cut it to two or three, artfully clinching sole possession of second place.
Whatever the case, the end result was hardly in doubt. Woods was going to win this tournament. There have been less predictable endings to episodes of “Full House.”
And then he fumbled. From the victory formation.
Johnson picked up a stroke on the 11th hole, posting birdie to Woods’ par and cutting the lead to three. He picked up another on the next hole, then another two holes later. But the impossible was still improbable. The script was already written. The tournament host would put things into cruise control, stiff arm the competition, and claim this trophy for the sixth time.
What happened next had so many twists and turns it should have been contested in nearby Hollywood.
Johnson found the fairway on the final hole. Woods went way left. Woods hit into a greenside bunker. Johnson hit into the water. Johnson hit a miraculous 58-yard wedge shot that dropped into the bottom of the cup for par. Woods hit a bunker shot that looked like it might follow, but stayed out.
Whew. Take a breath and rewrite that script.
On the first playoff hole, Johnson’s comeback became complete when his routine par was countered by Woods missing a five-foot par putt of his own, the culmination of a victory over the man he calls “the best player that’s ever played.”
And then, finally, it was over.
“To have it come down to what it did at the very end, it was pretty exciting,” Woods insisted afterward, though the look on his face didn’t exude excitement.
Through it all, though, this was always Woods’ tournament to win. Or perhaps more accurately, it was his to lose.
And therein might lie the problem.
One day earlier, armed with a two-stroke overnight lead, Woods was asked about playing from the pole position.
“They’ve got to come get you,” he explained. “I'd always much rather protect leads when the golf course is hard because you know that pars – dump it in the fairway, dump it on the green, make it par after par after par – will win the golf tournament.”
It may sound like fool’s errand to critique the closing ability of the game’s greatest closer. Woods’ numbers are legendary, his ability to keep the competition at arm’s length are as much a Sunday tradition as his red shirts.
But ever since he lost the 2009 PGA Championship to Y.E. Yang while holding this position, Woods has been susceptible to playing too conservatively in these scenarios. The middle eight holes of his final round featured a barrage of fairways and greens, each one ending in par.
It was hard to argue with the strategy at that point, his contention from a day earlier ringing true on the leaderboard.
“They’ve got to come get you.”
When Johnson finally did come get him, though, Woods struggled to relieve himself of the mindset that a scorecard filled with pars and devoid of any unforced errors would yield the title. He played the final nine holes – including the playoff – in 1 over, while Johnson was 4 under.
Forget the victory formation analogy. There’s an old adage in football which states, “The prevent defense prevents you from winning.” In the parlance of today’s Tour pros, there are players who are said to have “a lot of offense,” an insider term for a guy who bashes the ball and makes birdies in bunches. In contrast, Woods was playing prevent defense out here on Sunday, doing what he believed it took to not lose rather than to win.
It was a stark contrast to his strategy two days earlier, when he took dead aim at flagsticks while climbing the leaderboard. That aggressive approach had all but disappeared.
Afterward, he tried to explain his mindset down the stretch.
“I took it down there on a pretty good line on 16,” he said of a second shot into the par-5 that stayed too far left. “I could have easily done what Zach did. Zach made it a three‑shot hole to begin with.
“I took a chance and put it down there. I thought that, you know, with my shot shape and the way things were going, I thought that was a good, prudent play, and I ended up making 4, but 4 just got me a halve on the hole.”
This one was over. With eight holes to play, this was another Tiger Woods victory in an era consumed by them. We’d seen this story before. We knew what would happen.
Except this time, we didn’t. Call it conservative play by Woods, aggressive play by Johnson or some combination of the two, the end result was one we couldn’t have seen coming just a few hours earlier.