MARANA, Ariz. (AP) — Tiger Woods faced another pivotal putt on the 17th hole, this one from only 12 feet, the stakes much higher Saturday afternoon than his signature 35-foot eagle putt he made three days earlier in the Accenture Match Play Championship.
Typical of his year, success was inevitable.
Woods with a putt to win is becoming like Michael Jordan taking the last shot, David Ortiz at bat in the bottom of the ninth.
“It’s fun to have opportunity, whether you succeed or fail,” he said. “Luckily over my career, I’ve succeeded more than I’ve failed.”
Call this another success, and another trip to the finals.
Woods’ birdie on the 17th carried him to a 2-up victory Saturday over defending champion Henrik Stenson, putting him in the 36-hole final match against Stewart Cink, whose flawless front nine gave him a 4-and-2 victory over Justin Leonard.
“Every match is its own little battle,” Woods said, who won for the 22nd time in his last 25 matches at this fickle event. “One of the things I learned from my dad is in match play, you have 18 battles. You’ve just got to win more than they do.”
This was a fight that went the distance, typical of Stenson, who played at least 18 holes in all five of his rounds. The big-hitting Swede never led, but he was never far away, and when he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th, it was all square with two holes to play.
Woods never blinked.
His 5-wood from the fairway was pulled and landed near the edge of the bunker, leaving him an uphill, sidehill lie that he was thrilled to get within 12 feet of the cup. Stenson found the rough, laid up and hit a poor wedge that took birdie out of the picture.
“I’ve been in that position before,” Woods said. “I’ve played umpteen more matches in match play than he has. And I’ve seen it all. And nothing really surprises me out there.”
It was hardly a surprise to Stenson or anyone else Woods has beaten this week in a tournament he calls the toughest to win in golf this side of the four major championships.
He was 3 down with five holes left when he won four straight holes against J.B. Holmes in the opening round, capped by that 35-foot eagle putt on the 17th. He had to make 12 birdies in 20 holes to outlast Aaron Baddeley. In a tight quarterfinal match against K.J Choi earlier Saturday, Woods seized momentum by chipping in for eagle.
Now he’s 36 holes away from owning the world of golf, this in a literal sense.
Woods already has won 14 times in 25 starts at the World Golf Championships, but a victory Sunday would be the first time he has held all three titles, having won the CA Championship and Bridgestone Invitational last year.
He faces Cink, a friend and a foe from college, who has proven to be no pushover at Dove Mountain.
Cink has 33 sub-par holes in the 80 he has played over five rounds, and only once has he been extended to 18 holes. He was particularly brilliant against Leonard, shooting a 29 on the front nine for a 4-up lead.
And the best news is that Cink starts this final round with a fighting chance.
The last time he played with Woods in the final group was last month at the Buick Invitational, when Cink started eight shots behind.
“It seems like more often than not, I’ve been trailing by eight or 10 shots,” Cink said with a grin.
His last victory came at Firestone in 2004, when he built a five-shot lead over Woods and two others, winning by four. Two years later, Cink made up three-shot deficit against Woods over the last three holes, losing in a four-hole playoff.
Experience, among other things, still favors the world’s No. 1 player.
This will be the fourth time Woods has reached the final match, losing to Darren Clarke in 2000, winning in 2003 and 2004. Cink had never made it past the quarterfinals until Saturday.
Cink is 0-for-85 on the PGA Tour since his last victory. During that time, Woods is 22-for-56.
“It feels great just to get this far,” Cink said. “To be in the final, it’s going to be a blast.”
It will be the sixth All-American final in 10 years of this World Golf Championship.
None played better Saturday than Cink. He built an early lead against U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and pulled away with four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine for a 3-and-2 victory in the quarterfinals.
That his semifinal match against Leonard went 16 holes was a minor miracle.
Cink holed a chip to match birdies with Leonard at the third hole, took a 2-up lead with birdies on the next two holes, then knocked in a 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh and made a birdie putt from that range on No. 8 to lead by four.
Woods had a tougher battle.
He and Stenson halved seven of the first nine holes, and Woods had to hang on with a 15-foot birdie putt on the eighth with Stenson already in close range, and a 10-foot par on the ninth. After Woods’ chipped in for eagle, Stenson stayed close until tying him on the 16th.
“He’s been pushed a few times this week, and that’s all any of us can do,” Stenson said. “Eventually, we’ll get him.”
Cink got him once, but it was too long ago to remember.
He was at Georgia Tech when a Woods-led Stanford team came out to the Atlanta area. A day before the practice sessions, Cink played Woods at Druid Hills and beat him.
“I’ve known him practically as long as anybody else on tour has probably known Tiger Woods,” Cink said. “He’s just fun to play with. When you play with him in the latter part of the tournaments, it means you’re doing something well.”