This is as close as golf gets to March Madness: Tiger Woods didn’t win. Wait, it’s crazier than that: Tiger Woods didn’t win … a World Golf Championship … at Doral.
That’s impossible, you say. Tiger owns the WGCs the way Donald Trump owns the comb-over, having won 15 of the first 26. And Tiger plays Doral the way Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet, having taken the last three tournaments there. On top of that, Tiger hadn’t lost since September and over the last six months had become more intimidating than the paparazzi, more perfect than the Patriots.
How could Tom Brady — er, Tiger — not win? Because that’s the fickle nature of the game. Woods was going for seven straight victories and making another run at Byron Nelson’s unfathomable record of 11 in a row. Tiger appeared to be right on track as he blitzed the familiar Blue Monster with opening rounds of 67 and 66, 11 under par. At the final hole on Friday he rolled in a 24-footer for birdie that banked like Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega. Three feet before the ball dropped, Woods confidently raised his putter, creating what everyone figured to be the quintessential Tiger moment of the week, not to mention a spiffy cover for the 2009 tournament program.
The only problem was that Woods fizzled on the weekend, losing ground with an even-par 72 in the third round and then failing to make up a five-shot deficit during the rain-delayed Sunday-Monday final 18. Instead, Geoff Ogilvy chipped in to save par at the 13th hole and, with a 17-under 271 that included nary a three-putt, won the CA Championship by a stroke over Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh. Woods finished two back in fifth. “I had too many mistakes this week,” said Woods, who had four three-putts. “If I clean up my rounds this week, I’m right there.”
So Nelson’s record is safe (for now, anyway), Tiger’s streak is over and we can stop debating its length. If you list Woods with five wins in a row because you think only official PGA Tour events count, you probably live in the 904 area code and can explain the FedEx Cup points system. If you had Tiger at six straight because you included his European tour victory in Dubai, you’re probably hooked on the Travel Channel and own oil futures. If you had the streak at seven because you counted his win at the Target World Challenge, a silly season event with a mere 16 players, you are a true-blue FOT (Friend of Tiger).
We can also put to rest all that giddy talk about Tiger’s running the table in ’08. After his victories at Torrey Pines and Dubai, the Match Play and Bay Hill, some people were beginning to wonder. Welcome back to reality.
“As great a player as Tiger is, it’s impossible to win every event,” says two-time Tour winner Aaron Baddeley. “We’re human, you know. You’re going to have a time when things don’t go quite right. Tiger is always going to win his fair share of tournaments. It’s not that I’m relieved that he didn’t win. [A loss] was going to happen. It was simply a matter of when, whether it was six events … or 26.”
Ogilvy’s victory was affirmation that Woods is beatable, even on one of his favorite courses. Asked earlier in the week about the possibility of losing, Woods admitted that he was sure it would happen eventually. Yet considering the way he had played this year — 43 under par in three stroke-play wins and a scoring average of 67.75 — others weren’t so sure.
“I think it would’ve been cool if Tiger had won every one,” said Paul Casey, who was paired with Woods in the first two rounds. “It’s a great time to be playing golf. We all want to win, and Tiger reduces our opportunities every time he’s in the field, but it’s cool because we get to see history being made.”
Woods had 10 birdies in the breezy first two rounds, plus a pair of eagles on Friday. He reached the downwind, 529-yard 1st hole with, ho-hum, a seven-iron, and holed a greenside bunker shot on the 603-yard 12th. He had momentum, he had confidence, he had everything but the lead — Ogilvy was a stroke better. “[Tiger] played phenomenal golf the first two days,” Casey said. “I didn’t think anybody would be up there with him, but he wasn’t even leading. It shows the quality of golf that Geoff played.”
There were three noteworthy occurrences on Saturday. First, the wind lay down, so on a rare calm March day in Miami, Doral was defenseless, and a birdiefest ensued. Second, Tiger’s putter went cold. He didn’t birdie the 1st hole for the first time in 10 years. In fact — somebody call Mr. Guinness — he didn’t birdie any of the par-5s and was trampled by a stampede of pursuers, including Singh and Graeme Storm, who shot 63s.
Finally, the players who passed Woods were almost all guys who were supposedly capable of closing the gap on Tiger but hadn’t. Goosen, 39, hasn’t won a full-field stroke-play event in America since the 2004 U.S. Open and lately has been struggling with the aftereffects of laser eye surgery. Furyk won the Canadian Open last summer but hadn’t had a top 12 finish in his six previous starts and reportedly has been tinkering with the belly putter. (He used a conventional model at Doral.) Singh, the last man to dethrone Woods as No. 1 in the World Ranking, is finally seeing positive results as some swing changes kick in and already has four top fives this year. And then there was Ogilvy, the thoughtful 30-year-old Australian whose game didn’t go to the next level after he won the 2006 U.S. Open but whose family did. Ogilvy and his wife, Juli, have had two children in the last 15 months.
“It’s pretty satisfying to win a big one like this,” Ogilvy said. As for stopping Tiger’s streak, he added, “I’m very glad I did it. And it’s a nice place to do it because he’s owned this course in the past.”
A long-term return to form by any or all of the above players would suddenly spice up a show that Woods has monopolized since his PGA Championship victory last August. Overanalyze Tiger’s lost weekend at Doral if you must, but it appeared to be simply a case of the putts not falling. Tiger’s frustration boiled over on Sunday at the 9th tee when a photographer’s motor-drive camera fired prematurely. A highly annoyed Woods hissed, “Not on my swing!” during his one-handed follow-through and went on to make a bogey. When darkness halted the final round, Woods was a distant five shots back with seven holes to play.
Still, what happened at Doral is not going to change Woods’s status as the overwhelming favorite at next month’s Masters. “You don’t get remembered for the number of wins in your career,” Tiger reminded reporters last week. “It’s the number of wins in major championships.”
Keep those numbers in mind, then — 64 and 13, respectively. To think he’s not going to add to those totals this year would really be March Madness.