CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Tiger Woods walked with a slight limp toward the 18th green. He was sore and hadn’t played his best, yet was minutes away from winning for the ninth time in his last 12 PGA Tour events.
Third-round leader Rory Sabbatini had bragged about wanting to be paired with Woods in the final group, but he, Steve Stricker and Vijay Singh couldn’t catch him. It seems nobody can – sore knee or not.
Buoyed by an eagle on the seventh hole, Woods overcame a double bogey on 13, finishing with a 3-under 69 on Sunday for a two-shot win over Stricker at the Wachovia Championship.
“I felt like overall this week I didn’t really have my best stuff, but I putted great,” said Woods, who finished at 13-under 275 in his first tournament since he tied for second at the Masters. “I made the majority of those par putts, and sprinkled in a couple of bombs from 20 or 30 feet.”
And 60 feet. After narrowly missing the water with his tee shot at the seventh, Woods rolled in the long eagle attempt to get to 13-under and take the lead. He then birdied the eighth and ninth for a 31 on the front nine, moving to 15-under and taking a three-shot lead at a windy Quail Hollow.
Normally, that would be it for the world’s No. 1 player. But Woods, struggling off the tee, dropped into a tie for the lead when he hit a 4-iron into the rough and then three-putted the 13th green, while Stricker birdied 15 ahead of him.
“I figured I just let so many guys back in the tournament, gave them a shot of momentum,” Woods said
Instead, his competition faded, even in a major-like field that started with 27 of the top 30 in the world rankings. Woods quickly got his three-shot lead back when Stricker hit into the woods and sand for a double bogey at 16, while Woods birdied 15.
Singh, who was a shot back after Woods’ troubles at 13, bogeyed 14 and 16 and hit into the creek twice on 18 for a triple bogey. He shot 74 and finished in a three-way tie for seventh at 7-under.
And Sabbatini, who said he couldn’t wait to play with Woods in the final round, never made a charge. He started with nine straight pars and shot 38 on the back nine.
“He got the job done today and I didn’t,” said Sabbatini, who shot 74 and finished tied for third with Phil Mickelson. “I don’t have any regrets about that. I want him every week now.”
Most wouldn’t. Able to play it safe over the final three holes – rated the toughest closing stretch on the PGA Tour the past three years – Woods parred 16, bogeyed 17 and knocked in an 8-foot par putt on 18 for his first win in three appearances at the five-year-old tournament.
Sabbatini shot 74, a day after his 64 tied the course record. He finished four shots back, tied for third with Phil Mickelson, who shot 70 but was never in contention.
“I think just some slight changes, a few putts here and there and it’s a major change in the outcome,” Sabbatini said.
Woods, who collected $1.134 million for his 57th career win, moved atop the FedEx Cup standings for the first time, and is the man to beat for The Players Championship next weekend. Even if he’s starting to get aches and pains.
“I’ve been sore all week, ever since that (cold) front came in,” Woods said. “Yeah, old age. Welcome to the 30s, huh?”
Stricker, looking for his first win since 2001, got into contention with a 32 on the front nine, while trying to avoid looking at the leaderboard. He shot 69, finishing at 11-under.
“I’ve had a good year up to this point and to finish second here is a bonus,” Stricker said. “It just shows me that I’m working on the right stuff and I’ve got the confidence to play well. I’m excited for the rest of the year.
Mickelson managed his second straight top-five finish after hiring Butch Harmon as his new swing coach. But Mickelson played the easier front nine at only 1-under and never got in the running.
“I thought it would be tough for some guys to keep pace because (the wind) was difficult, and Tiger got off to a great start,” Mickelson said. “It looked like everybody was going to have to do something spectacular.”
Nobody did. Stricker, Singh and Sabbatini found the water, bunkers and rough. Woods – at less than full strength – proved too strong in a tournament that has the feel of a major and 30 mile-and-hour wind gusts.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve won a few tournaments here and there, and it’s been nice,” Woods said. “This one, considering the field and the golf course and the conditions, ecstatic to have won here.”
But not satisfied. Woods left Quail Hollow wearing the tournament’s customary blue jacket, a winner for the third time in six events this year.
“It’s three short of where I wanted to be,” Woods said. “Or three short of my intent, put it that way.”