THOUSAND OAKS, CALIFORNIA | This is what matters: Golf again has its spirit, its soul, its attraction. Golf again has its niche in the sports pages, its place on the television screens. Golf again has Tiger Woods, stepping beyond the past and into the future.
If you love the game, then you have to love Tiger Woods, even if you abhor what he did personally. Tiger makes golf relevant, the way Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer make tennis relevant, the way Kobe Bryant and LeBron James make pro basketball relevant.
Tiger Woods had hustlers a few miles away from Sherwood Country Club holding up signs, “I need tickets,” as they do outside stadiums and ballparks. Tiger Woods had busload after busload of fans arriving from the parking lots to Sherwood’s entrance.
Tiger was back atop the mountain, if not to the top of the world rankings. If he ended up squandering a lead and then losing a one-hole playoff to Graeme McDowell was less significant than the fact for the first time in 13 months Tiger Woods was a contender.
And was optimistic.
McDowell saved bogey with a 10-foot putt on the 17th, equaled Tiger’s short birdie with a 20-footer on 18 and then won it with a 25-footer on the same hole in the playoff. McDowell caught Tiger with a 3-under 69, compared to Tiger’s only over-par round of the tournament, a 73, and each finished regulation at 26-under 272.
Asked whether this was the close of a dreadful 2010 or a possibly wonderful 2011, Woods said, “I don’t know, but I’m really excited about the off-season, which I haven’t been for a while. I know the direction I’m going.”
The direction in which he’s been pointed since starting to work with Sean Foley in July, Foley contending he didn’t have that much to change with Woods’ occasionally erratic swing but embellished the teachings of first Butch Harmon and then Hank Haney.
“I’m excited that my swing was there when I needed it,” said Woods. “The old flaws kept creeping in. I had to be committed. I lost it some in the middle of the (final) round, but I was able to put it back together again.”
It wasn’t The Masters or the U.S. Open, but the $5 million Chevron World Challenge, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, held within a locked-gates setting of $5 million homes, was very “El-Eh,” which is how the locals refer to Los Angeles.
Hollywood, about 35 miles down the freeway, long ago is where the star system was perfected. No one cared if you could act, only if you could bring in customers. They didn’t need Laurence Olivier, they needed Clark Gable. Or now Matt Damon. They needed celebrities.
The way these days golf needs Tiger Woods. And now seemingly once again has him, even if Tiger didn’t have his fifth win in the Chevron.
Nobody in sports got more attention than Tiger Woods, first for his game, the 80-plus victories around the world including the 14 majors. Then for his scandalous behavior, outdoing even movie types.
Not a lot of people go from Sports Illustrated to TMZ. Not a lot of athletes go from beloved to despised – and perhaps back again to beloved if with some hesitancy.
When Tiger in his final event of a previously winless year jumped into the lead on Day 1 of the Chevron, a lead he didn’t relinquish until the the 67th hole – the 13th on the back nine Sunday, which he double-bogeyed – it changed the dynamics. Golf could no longer be ignored.
It was the Thursday the World Cup Sites were announced. The Thursday the Philadelphia Eagles, and Michael Vick, beat the Houston Texans. The Thursday LeBron James returned to Cleveland. And yet golf with Tiger was in the headlines, when without Tiger it would have been a two-inch story buried in on page seven.
“Welcome back, Tiger,’’ said PGA official Mark Stevens. He meant literally, Woods returning to the press interview room where two days earlier he had given the now familiar rhetoric about trying to become a better golfer and a better person. But Stevens also could have been alluding to the big picture.
Yes, Tiger was back, back twirling his irons after a good shot, pumping his fist after a brilliant shot, smiling above a goatee he may or may not keep.
That Tiger, who carried a 4-shot lead into the final round, who led a tournament after 54 holes for the first time since the 2009 Australian Masters, stumbled down the stretch at the Chevron, was unfortunate but hardly fatal. Or discouraging.
“It was a great week,’’ said Woods, who December 30 turns 35 years old. “Even though I didn’t win. I’m proud of (Sunday).”
Even if Woods previously never had lost when he carried a lead of three or more into the final round of any tournament.
“I lost my swing,” said Woods, “but was pleased I could put it back together.”
He also put golf back together. Good times are coming.