For the second straight year, Tiger Woods battled a gritty competitor who simply wouldn’t quit at the Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club. This time, Woods delivered the clutch putts at the end, making a 10-foot, downhill birdie putt to finally put away Zach Johnson.
Woods gave a violent fist pump as his second-straight birdie disappeared into the cup, perhaps reigniting one of the most storied careers in golf. Johnson and his caddie, Damon Green, looked at each other and smiled as the crowd erupted. It was a familiar sight, albeit one we hadn’t seen in more than two years.
“It feels good,” said Woods. “I’ve been in contention twice this year, which is not very often. I had the lead at the Masters on the back nine there, and obviously had a chance there at the Aussie Open.”
Woods was attempting to break the longest winless streak of his career, a 749-day dry spell that spanned 26 starts in which he had been unable to prevail in either an official or unofficial tournament. No one could have guessed on Nov . 15, 2009, when Woods won the JBWere Australian Masters, that it would be this long before he won again. But Woods’s golf game was no match for his personal problems and injuries.
“I felt that in order for me to play the way I know I can play, I had to get fully fit,” Woods said. “I had to get healthy and to where I was strong and explosive again so I could practice. It basically starts with that. I was finally able to practice.”
It wasn’t until two weeks after he missed the cut at the PGA Championship in August that Woods was cleared to practice as much as he wanted. He began playing 36 holes or more in a day at home in Florida, and seemed to have rediscovered his form at the Australian Open (third) and the Presidents Cup (2-3-0 ). It was at the Australian Open that Matt Kuchar played a practice round with Woods and noticed the return of his eye-popping speed through the ball, once an advantage he lorded over the Tour.
“I was impressed with how well he was keeping up with Dustin [Johnson] off the tee,” said Kuchar, who shot 71 on Sunday at the Chevron and tied for fourth place with Hunter Mahan. “He seemed to have refound the length again. I was surprised the last year or two how much distance he seemed to have lost. It’s fun to see him regaining form again.”
On the 10th hole, Woods dropped his approach shot to within three feet and made the short birdie putt, and then hit the green in two on the par-5 11th hole, setting up a two-putt for an easy birdie and a two-stroke lead over Johnson.
But while a two-shot lead with seven holes remaining used to mean an automatic victory for Woods, that’s not the case anymore.
Woods pulled his 6-iron tee shot on the par-3 12th hole and made bogey to cut the lead to one. After setting himself up perfectly off the tee on the par-5 13th hole, Woods mis-hit his approach shot from 250 yards and failed to get up and down from just in front of the green, missing a birdie try from about 10 feet. Johnson drained his putt from about 12 feet to tie and birdied the par-5 16th to take the lead.
Woods responded with a birdie of his own to tie on the par-3 17th.
There have been moments during the last two years when it appeared Woods was back on track. He went nine under par through 15 holes to beat Francesco Molinari at the 2010 Ryder Cup , and lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell at the 2010 Chevron. Woods tied for fourth at the Masters this year after a thrilling Sunday charge.
But for every encouraging development, there was an equally deflating false start. Woods hurt his oft-injured left knee while hitting from a bed of pine needles at the Masters, an injury that would sideline him for most of May, and all of June and July, and setting him back in his effort to rebuild his swing. When he came back at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, he tied for 37th place while his former caddie, Steve Williams, gloated after yet another victory, this time with Adam Scott.
Woods missed the cut at the PGA Championship, raising new questions about whether he would ever return to the player he once was. He had a new caddie, Joe LaCava, and a new swing, but he couldn’t seem to find his old groove. He finally began to recover his game with additional practice, firing a course-record 62 at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., before doing little more than making the cut at the Frys.com Open in October.
He looked much improved at the Presidents Cup in Australia last month, and in practice at Sherwood, but as coach Sean Foley said early in the week, “I don’t figure out my odds until Sunday at like 7 p.m.”
The former No. 1 player in the world will move from 52nd to 21st in the World Ranking after a day on which the other winners around the world included Rory McIlroy (No. 2) and Lee Westwood (No. 3). Woods looked mostly at ease with his new swing, which he’s been honing under Foley since August 2010, and his victory Sunday suggests big things for 2012.
“Every time he goes through some swing changes,” Johnson said, “it takes a little while. Then he gets into it and it’s, oh, boy, here we go.”