THOUSAND OAKS, CALIFORNIA | Golf is whole again, and let us ignore what the skeptics and doubters might say. They’ll argue that when Tiger Woods finally ended the silence, at last gave that full-voiced shout of victory on an 18th green, it came not in The Masters or U.S. Open, or even a regular full-field PGA Tour event, but in what amounts to his own invitational, the Chevron World Challenge.
But a tournament is a tournament, and this one not only provided the breakthrough and halted the questions – “Is Tiger ever going to win again?” – but also set up Woods for 2012 and for some unusual self-deprecation.
“I feel pretty good going into next year,” said Tiger to more than a few chuckles. “I think if I have a good year, I should be on the ballot for Comeback Player of the Year.”
Those in golf only can hope so. There are so many great players, from Rory McIlroy to Lee Westwood – winners over the weekend in places far away – to unappreciated Keegan Bradley. There is, however, only one Tiger Woods, a man who transcends his sport, who brings in the non-purists, who gets golf front sports-page space in the dailies on an NFL weekend.
It’s all changed after the $5 million Chevron, at Sherwood Country Club, a course chopped out of the Santa Monica Mountains some 40 miles west of Los Angeles. The belief Tiger expressed in himself after playing decently in the Frys.com Open in October and leading the Australian Open in November seems to have been realized.
Maybe the comments of K.J. Choi after playing with Woods the second round of the Chevron – “He played like an artist” – were a bit of an exaggeration. Yet, as Tiger approaches his 36th birthday on December 30 and golf approaches a possible Tiger renaissance, those who administer the game have to be as optimistic as Woods himself.
Was the Chevron, as Woods mentioned alluding to Jim Furyk’s 2009 victory and then Player of the Year 2010 season, a steppingstone? It certainly was a return to the past.
For two years, since that 2009 Thanksgiving night accident, and the revelations and injuries and swing changes under Sean Foley, Tiger was a conundrum. He had led a Masters, he had missed a cut in a PGA, and he had not even entered the 2011 U.S. or British Opens because of that questionable knee and sore Achilles.
The total of tournaments without a win, since the 2009 Australian Open, had grown to 26 before the Chevron. The streak ended here. If barely.
Woods holed birdie putts the final two holes – just like the old days, right? – and overtook Zach Johnson, with emotion immediately overtaking Tiger, who pumped his fist and ripped off his hat in glorious triumph as he hadn’t in 25 months.
Tiger’s final-round, 3-under-par 69 gave him a 10-under total of 278, one swing ahead of Johnson, the 2007 Masters winner. Paul Casey made a remarkable run to finish third, starting with a 7-over 79, and then after giving up on a new swing, shooting 67-68-69 for 283, 5 under.
At another tournament, maybe Johnson and Casey get more attention, deservedly, but when Tiger rings down the echoes, for better or worse, it’s a one-person show.
There was an other-worldly feel to the Chevron. The strongest Santa Ana winds in decades tore into southern California on Wednesday night, knocking out power for days to cities such as Pasadena and even blowing over the quarter-pole at famed Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia. Schools were closed, roads were impassable.
At Sherwood, a Jack Nicklaus course embraced by baronial mansions up to the $7 million range, the wind tossed balls into bunkers and water hazards and had spectators drawn by Tiger’s appearance bundled up in sweatshirts and fleece. The temperature, around 60, was lower than the scores.
Woods, despite the frequent reminders of his missteps and poor shots, said during his struggles that he never got low. He said he believed when he was fully fit, when he had regained the explosiveness in his swing, when he could practice for hours on end, he could be the golfer he had been.
Then when in position, Tiger explained there was a feeling of normalcy. “I’ve been here so many times,” Woods pointed out. “Was I nervous? Absolutely. But I was comfortable. I enjoy being in that position.”
A year ago, Tiger had a four-shot lead entering the last round of the Chevron and lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell. He said in retrospect he only could maneuver shots right to left. Now he can shape them in both directions. Now he can shape golf in a direction it hasn’t been in for a long time.
“I’m pleased with the way I’m able to fix my swing out there,” said Woods, “but under the gun, I kind of got back into an old pattern, so obviously I need more reps. When the pressure was on the most, the last two holes, I hit three of the best shots I hit all week. That’s very exciting for me.”
And for golf.