Column: Woods' quiet win could produce a big echo
No one knows what this one means, least of all Tiger Woods.
A win at the Chevron World Challenge doesn't provide much in the way of bragging rights. It's not an official PGA Tour event, the field is limited to 18 players and it wraps up in the middle of an NFL Sunday, when most golf fans are paying closer attention to first downs than fairways hit. But after more than two years and 26 tournaments without a win of any kind, Woods isn't about to hand this one back.
"It feels great," he said afterward. "It's kind of hard for me to elaborate beyond that."
Here's why: Woods won't play tournament golf again until the end of January, when any momentum from the birdie-birdie finish he dropped on Zach Johnson to seal the deal will be little more than a fading memory. Ditto for the sometimes-sparkling golf Woods has played for nearly a month now, including nine of 11 rounds in the 60s and a handful of shots that no other golfer in the world could have pulled off.
But if there's a takeaway from any of that, it's this: For the first time in a long time, there was a feeling of inevitability about Woods' final putt on the 18th green at Sherwood Country Club. It was only 6 feet, but it was also straight downhill, the way our expectations for Woods have been trending for some time now. Yet the second after the ball disappeared into the cup, an NBC camera cut to Johnson flashing his caddie a grin that suggested, "I can't do anything about that" before walking across the green to shake hands.
"In this game, I'm never surprised with the way the guys are able to execute and hit shots," said Johnson, a former Masters champion. "I think he would be the epitome of that example. ... I mean, he's the most experienced and the best player I've ever played with. In every situation, he knows how to execute and win."
Or did — until that fateful crash-filled, post-Thanksgiving ride down the driveway of his Florida mansion two years ago cost Woods his marriage, his reputation, a handful of big-bucks sponsors and his uncanny ability to produce magical shots time and again in the most pressure-packed situations. That 6-footer on Sunday won't be cherished, let alone remembered, the way any of the dozens that locked up major championships will be, and a few of his fellow golfers went so far as to make that same point on Twitter. Not that Woods needed humbling, not after 18 months as the butt of countless late-night TV jokes and two-plus years without a win.
"They all feel good, you know. They're not easy," he said. "People don't realize how hard it is to win golf tournaments. I've gone on streaks where I've won golf tournaments in a row, but still, each one, I don't think I've taken it for granted.
"And I know," Woods added, "because of how hard it is."
In case he needed reminding, No. 2 Rory McIlroy won the Hong Kong Open and No. 3 Lee Westwood won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa the same day. But the funny thing is that the Chevron, which Woods hosts to benefit his foundation, actually had more players ranked in the top 25 than either: 11 total, compared to just three in Hong King and six in South Africa. And a few of those golfers saw enough to suggest that after so many false starts, Woods may actually be — as he never tires of saying — putting it all together.
"I figured someday he'd let all this stuff get past and rededicate himself," said Steve Stricker. "When somebody goes in the tank, you need to have that work ethic to get yourself off the bottom. We all know he works extremely hard when he wants to. He's finally getting his mind clear and wants to work at it a lot."
Though no one discussed it and few people were in a position to actually know, there was plenty to suggest that the distractions of his divorce and a string of injuries left Woods little time to work on his game. He left swing coach Hank Haney for Sean Foley, cut caddie Steve Williams and hired Joe LaCava, but the biggest change over the winless streak was how little Woods actually played.
Beginning with the Fry's Open last month, then on through some exhibitions, the Australian Open, Presidents Cup and now the Chevron, Woods has hit more golf balls than at any time in the past year. In the wind at Royal Melbourne, he hit a half-dozen shots that made you gasp — among them a 3-wood that was head-high and traveled 280 yards before coming to a stop 12 feet from the pin — and if not for a bogey-bogey-bogey start to the third round, Woods might have won that tournament, too.
The old Tiger might have said exactly that, but the one who's out there now wouldn't dare. The closest thing to an old "I told you so" that Woods mustered was a tweet asking, "who's up for some ll cool j?" that linked to a video of the rapper's 1991 hit "Mama Said Knock You Out." The song's well-known first line warns, "Don't call it a comeback. I've been here for years."
Just not in the winner's circle for the last two. All of a sudden, though, the guys Woods will be facing again come the start of next season won't be surprised to find him there again.
"I don't know if he'll ever get to where he was before, because he was so dominant. Sure, he'll have good stretches again and play some tremendous stretches again," Stricker said. "I don't know if we'll ever see that again from anybody.
"I'm sure he thinks he can get back there," he added a moment later. "I wouldn't doubt if he did."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.