THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – For the second time in just over a year Tiger Woods rode a commanding lead into Sunday and for the second time he spit up that advantage to a scrappy challenger. That’s where the similarities between the 2009 PGA Championship and 2010 Chevron World Challenge end.
Woods, the competitor, will stew on that reality until he sinks a peg in his next PGA Tour tee next year at Torrey Pines. For Woods, the comeback, Sunday at Sherwood Country Club was nothing short of one giant leap in the right direction, one small step for rebuilt legacies.
That it was Graeme McDowell doing the chasing only added to a script already rich with storylines. For Woods and G-Mac it’s been a tale of two vastly different years.
It was 12 months ago that McDowell was holed up in a Los Angeles hotel room, fresh from China, waiting to hear the news that he would replace Woods – embattled by a scandal that had erupted just days earlier – in the 18-man field.
From there one would go on to a career year, win a major, the Ryder Cup and exceed all expectations. The other was Woods.
Seems about right then that for two SoCal days it was the prince and the punch line, one happily closing out 2010, the other still waiting to exhale.
“2010 has been the stuff of dreams, I’m not sure why,” said McDowell, who began Sunday four strokes back, closed with 69 and holed 55 feet of putts over his last three holes to clip the host. “It felt like a year like this one was coming, but obviously a script like this is amazing.”
Fitting that McDowell’s journey, which began and ended in Tinseltown, would be categorically rejected by the Hollywood establishment – too farfetched even for the City of Angels.
McDowell’s climb started when he replaced Woods in last year’s Chevron field, finished second to Jim Furyk to crack the top 50 in the World Ranking and never looked back.
Even on Sunday at Sherwood McDowell was at ease with whatever the golf gods had in store for him. “I figured he had more to lose then I did. Whatever happened I was going to have a cold beer tonight,” he said.
The Northern Irishman lives in Orlando, Fla., but considering his SoCal record of late he may want to consider property in the other Orange County. Following his runner-up last year at Chevron he won the U.S. Open up the coast at Pebble Beach and Sunday’s shootout makes him 2-for-3 on the Left Coast.
McDowell want so far as to compare his final-round play at the Chevron to the U.S. Open and Ryder Cup – dubbing his 20 footer at the 72nd hole to force extra holes and 30 footer to clip Woods in extra frames the “two greatest putts I’ve ever made.”
That’s not to mention the 5 footer he made from Ventura after airmailing the 17th green and scrambling for bogey to keep pace with Woods.
Not that McDowell’s heroics at No. 17 looked as if they would matter when Woods carved his 8-iron approach shot to the 72nd green off a hanging lie to 2 feet. It was quintessential Woods, fist pump and all, and will help validate the world No. 2’s ongoing swing change with Sean Foley.
“The shot I hit at 18 in regulation, especially after struggling in the middle part of the round when I wasn’t swinging very good, was something,” said Woods, who closed with a 73, his only over-par card of the week, for a 16-under total. “When I needed it the most it was there. That’s a good feeling.”
Even in the playoff Woods split the middle of the fairway and hit a similar approach shot to 12 feet only to come up one clutch putt short.
For Woods, the Chevron was a “silly season” event in name only. The host needed this one, not for the Tiger Woods Foundation or even to get off the victory schnied, but for his own piece of mind heading into the off season.
Just ask his stable mates. As Woods rehearsed his swing to the last hole in regulation Hunter Mahan, another Foley charge, watched intently.
“Under pressure to do that, wow,” Mahan said. “You can tell a win means a lot right now.”
The OT loss will linger for Woods. They all do, it’s in the DNA. And on Sunday the man who has preached “baby steps” since he started working with Foley at this year’s PGA wasn’t enamored with the long view, but the progress is unmistakable.
“It was an excellent week I thought,” Foley said. “Tee to green was great. We just have to keep working hard and smart.”
Woods’ runner-up, his best finish of the year, combined with Lee Westwood’s runaway, eight-stroke victory at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa guarantees that Woods will finish the year No. 2 in the World Ranking.
It will mark the first time since 2004 someone not named Eldrick finished a calendar atop the mathematical mantel. Either way, Woods would have only been renting the space and would have gotten the boot before the end of the year because of the math.
Still, there was progress. Solid ballstriking, missing for much of the season, returned. As did the twirl, Woods’ signature move following good shots that had been MIA. Asked the last time he enjoyed so many twirls Woods could only laugh, “Usually it's pointing which way the ball is going to go, incoming somewhere.”
Now it seems Woods’ game is finally going somewhere.