THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – In the early moments of “The Adjustment Bureau,” leading man Matt Damon makes a speech that begins, “When you got in a fight, it wasn't whether or not you got knocked down. It's what you do when you get back up.”
Two years and 26 tournaments since taking his high-profile haymaker Tiger Woods finally had an answer for his critics, and maybe even himself, outdueling Zach Johnson on a postcard-perfect afternoon north of Los Angeles to at least begin closing the book on one of the most curious chapters in sports history.
On the extended resume that Woods has etched over a decade a one-stroke squeaker at a limited-field, silly-season event may not resonate as profound, or even particularly interesting, but after two stints on the DL, two swing coaches, two caddies and too many missed opportunities it was reason to crack the champagne – which he dutifully provided to the press corps as afternoon quickly turned to night.
Enter “Champagne Tiger Woods,” not exactly the dominant figure he once was but undoubtedly not ready for pasture, as many of his critics figured he was as his winless slump went from weeks to years.
What it lacked in depth Woods’ Chevron World Challenge triumph made up for in significance, the first “W” under swing coach Sean Foley’s watch, the first since Woods’ personal and professional life took a header in November 2009 and, maybe more importantly for Woods, the first since he started spending more time in doctor’s offices than on practice tees.
Not that the Chevron host was in much of a mood to dig deep into a guarded psyche following his shootout thriller at Sherwood Country Club, but the significance was not entirely lost on him.
“In the middle of the summer when I was on crutches and on the couch, that was tough,” said Woods, who closed with 69 for a 10-under 278 total. “I’ve been there before in my career and it’s probably more difficult than people can imagine.”
Imagine his relief following close calls at last month’s Australian Open and this year’s Masters. Even last year’s Chevron, where he lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell with a one-dimensional swing and a body that was, if not broken, then severely bent.
This wasn’t easy, didn’t even look that way in HD, and although Woods may have sidestepped the historical significance of this victory his fist pump and unrestrained yell on the 72nd hole spoke volumes.
One stroke down to Johnson with two holes to play, Woods rifled a 9-iron from 172 yards on the par-3 17th to 15 feet to square the match and walked the winner in from 6 feet following another 9-iron from 158 yards at the last for the victory.
“Poor guy couldn’t make a putt for three days and then made two coming in,” said Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava. “I told him, it wasn’t easy but it was a lot of fun.
None of this has been easy for Woods. Not the far-too-public divorce, the injuries and certainly not the losses, and when he started the final round one stroke back and locked in a putting contest with Johnson – the competitive equivalent of getting embroiled in a land war in Russia – he must have been pining for the days when players would peel off leaderboards at the sight of his name.
But Woods pulled even with Johnson on the third, went one clear at the fourth and was 2 up through 11 holes following a two-putt birdie. Like McDowell a year earlier, Johnson squared the match with a birdie at the 13th hole and pulled ahead with a 12-footer at the 16th hole.
The new Woods, the guy still learning the nuances of his swing and battling a balky putter, had shown a concerning inability to run uphill when the shot clock was winding down. On Sunday he closed with consecutive birdies to chants of “Let’s go Ti-Ger.”
Not all silly-season events are created equal, and Woods’ fifth Chevron title would certainly qualify as an object that is larger than it appears, building momentum for his 2012 campaign, which begins in about six weeks at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. The victory also propelled him to 21st in the World Golf Ranking, a confounding jump of 32 places following his plummet to 52nd.
Asked on Saturday which was more important, a win or the progress he’s shown dating back to last month’s Australian Open, Woods was predictably vague, suggesting it was the progress that was most rewarding.
In practical terms at Sherwood progress was 52 of 72 greens in regulation, a 72 percent clip that is five points better than his limited season average, a 1.58 putting average to rank third in the field and just three three-putts all week.
“They all feel good,” Woods said of the victory. “They’re not easy, people don’t realize that. I don’t think I’ve taken it for granted because I know how hard it is.”
For Woods victories may be like children, impossible to distinguish between the good and the great, but for those around him the Chevron was more than just another trophy for the mantel.
“Winning means everything to him whether it’s an 18-man field or Augusta National,” LaCava said. “He wants to win and get the crystal. He knows it’s not 144 guys, he knows it’s not the Masters, but still, winning is winning. It means a lot. It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if he lost and it’s not the end of the world since he won, but it still means a lot.”
Even Foley, who flew home Friday and was the one who suggested Woods try his old “poa annua” putting grip on Sherwood’s surfaces, embraced the progress over the perceived significance of the victory.
“I’m just glad for him,” Foley said. “He has been through a lot and I am extremely proud of him.”
For those waiting to see what Woods would do when he finally got back up, the answer came in a flurry of fist pumps and clutch putts on Sunday.
But it wasn’t the line from a movie that sent Woods out into the Sunday fray. Before he teed off for his final turn he received a text message from a friend with the lyrics from an old-school LL Cool J song: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”