THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – For most competitors in the World Challenge field, this week marks the last real tournament of the season. Well, as real as an 18-man field with guaranteed six-figure paychecks can be.
It is the anchor leg in a year-long race, the final mile in a considerable journey. And because of that, many are already looking ahead to the upcoming offseason – abbreviated as it may be – with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.
There’s still plenty at stake, though.
Forget the $1 million paycheck and the porcelain tiger trophy and the unofficial victory. Even though this tournament takes place near the end of one calendar, it has proven to provide a necessary confidence boost for many winners once the year turns.
Back in 2005, Luke Donald salvaged a winless season by claiming this title, then triumphed in his fifth official start of the next season.
Three years ago, Jim Furyk wrapped up a disappointing two-year drought by winning this event, then followed with a three-victory Player of the Year campaign.
And last year, Tiger Woods won for his first victory anywhere in more than two years, and used that as fuel toward his three titles this season.
All of which leads to current leader Graeme McDowell, who owns a two-stroke advantage entering the final round. He already understands what a strong performance here can yield, his runner-up finish to Furyk in 2009 qualifying him for the next year’s U.S. Open, which he won at Pebble Beach.
Now he finds himself in a predicament similar to those of Donald, Furyk and Woods in previous years. Without a victory in 2012, this stands as his final opportunity to claim some hardware before the year ends.
“It would be nice to kind of get the reward, because I feel like I've been playing pretty solidly for a couple months and got nothing from it,” said McDowell, who posted a 4-under 68 on Saturday. “But this game, there's no such thing as deserving things, and you've got to earn it. I'll go and see what happens tomorrow and, like I said, it'll be a nice way to finish the year if I can get a good win.”
Not that he’s the only one hoping to mirror the blueprint of a win here serving as a springboard to greater success next year.
Trailing McDowell on the leaderboard are Keegan Bradley, Woods and Bo Van Pelt. Just behind them, a half-dozen strokes off the lead, stands Furyk, who is still holding only hope that a victory could serve as a silver lining to a dark cloud of a season.
“This tournament has been different for me in different years,” said Furyk, who shot 1-under 71 in the third round. “I think it was a springboard for me in some years when I was looking ahead. I’ve also had years when I was worn out. Right now, I usually take a lot of time off from the end of the season until here, and from the end of the season until AT&T. So for me, it’s just a reminder. It makes me get a club in my hand, it makes me practice. It kind of bridges the gap between two seasons, because I’ll take so much time off.”
His struggles this year have been well documented. Furyk faltered down the stretch at the U.S. Open, lost on the final hole of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and shouldered much of the blame in the United States' defeat at the Ryder Cup.
He knows a win here could lead to a much more successful season next year, largely in part because he’s proven it before.
“What was nice about winning in ’09 was that I had struggled to get a win in both 2008 and ’09,” he added. “I was flustered. And then to come here and birdie down the stretch, win the tournament, it was a nice pick-me-up. It ended up giving me a nice feeling and a good start to the 2010 season.”
Whomever wins on Sunday – whether it’s a player who is in desperate need of a victory like McDowell or Furyk, or one adding to previous success this year like Woods or Bradley – will definitely have that nice feeling. Based on past experiences, he may have a jump on getting a good start next season, too.