THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Earl Woods could blow smoke with the best of them, yet it was always entertaining.
Such was the case years ago when he was raving about how Tiger Woods thoroughly enjoyed the biggest stage in golf, because his son knew he could perform under pressure. But if it that were true, then how did Woods butcher the final round of the Quad City Classic when he had a chance to win in his third start as a pro?
“It took me awhile to figure out why he didn’t win,” Earl Woods said in a 2003 interview. “Then it dawned on me and I told my wife, ‘Tiger is going to win in Las Vegas.’ Because in his subconscious mind, he did not want to win his first tournament in some . . . place like Quad Cities.”
Woods ended the longest drought of his career — 26 tournaments without a win over 749 days — at the Chevron World Challenge, and whether that was the ideal place for him to finally pose with a trophy again depends on the perspective.
In one respect, he came full circle at Sherwood Country Club.
This was the first tournament that Woods skipped in the immediate aftermath of Thanksgiving night 2009, when his personal life imploded. And it was at this tournament last year when he blew a four-shot lead and lost to Graeme McDowell in a playoff, a sign that something wasn’t quite right with his game.
On Sunday, he looked like the Woods of old by making clutch birdie putts on the last two holes to beat Zach Johnson, who played bogey-free on the back nine.
Then again, Johnson was one of only 17 players Woods had to beat at Sherwood.
Even though the Chevron World Challenge had 11 of the top 25 players in the world ranking — the most of any tournament in the world last week — some of the easiest events to win have the smallest fields. And the field shrinks even more when free money is being offered (US$140,000 for last place). It also could be argued that some players had one eye on the holiday season. For 12 of the 18 players at Sherwood, that was their last tournament of the year.
Some will never be satisfied, though.
Woods could win his first tournament of 2012 in Abu Dhabi, and skeptics won’t think it matters until he wins on the PGA Tour (Europe has more top players, though the depth is lacking). He could win at Pebble Beach, and some will say the only measure is the majors.
Here’s how to gauge Sunday: It was a significant win because it was significant to Woods.
He said in August that his left leg feels as strong as it has in years, and that much should be believed. “If the man is healthy, that’s paramount,” Johnson said.
Woods said he has been working hard on his new swing over the last three months, and that much was evident based on the quality of shots he hit at the Australian Open, at the Presidents Cup and at the Chevron World Challenge.
What he needs is confidence, and making two key putts with a tournament on the line is only going to help.
Steve Stricker played with Woods in the opening round at Sherwood a year ago when Woods opened with a 65. He was with him for the first round this year when Woods shot 69 in gusting conditions.
“Last year I played with him here in the first round and I thought, ’Wow, this guy is back,”’ Steve Stricker said. “But you could tell this time around, he’s got even more confidence and more game. He feels even better about the direction he’s headed.”
We’ll have to wait a few months to see exactly where it’s headed.
Woods said he worked so hard after missing the cut in the PGA Championship that despite winning so late in the year, he was looking forward to a break. He will not compete again for nearly two weeks until starting his 2012 season in Abu Dhabi against a world-class field, with Martin Kaymer as the defending champion.
“This tournament would be a good win for him,” Stricker said as Woods was locked in a duel with Johnson on the back nine. “It’s not against a full field or anything like that, but there are good players here. This would be a great stepping stone for him.”
Even when it was considered part of the silly season, this tournament has a history of leading to better things for the winner.
Tom Lehman won in 1999, and then captured the Phoenix Open the next year to end a four-year winless stretch on the PGA Tour. Davis Love III won in 2000 and two months later won at Pebble Beach for his first tour victory in nearly three years. Luke Donald won in 2005, and the next year won the Honda Classic for his first tour win in four years. It even worked for Woods at the end of 2004, which at the time was his worst year on tour. The following season, he won two majors.
In the most recent example, and the one Woods cited on the 18th green, Jim Furyk won at Sherwood in 2009. The following year, Furyk had a career-high three wins on tour and captured the FedEx Cup.
If there is a rush to declare that Woods is back — or at the very least, on his way — it’s because fans have been clamouring for him to show signs of life.
One win is not enough, even if it had been against a full field. And while the finish was vintage Woods, it looked as though he had to work much harder to give himself a chance at the end. How much Woods gains from this win will not be determined for several months.
But he got something out of it, for sure.
“If he steadily progresses, keeps getting confidence and moving forward,” Furyk said, “he’s going to return and be one of the best players in the game again.”