THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.
It felt just like old times.
Tiger Woods had a putt to win a tournament and, in the natural amphitheater that is the closing hole at Sherwood Country Club, he delivered on a gorgeous, crisp Sunday afternoon, punctuating the at-the-death Chevron World Challenge victory with a signature fist pump as the galleries erupted.
He’s celebrated these things 82 times before, often just like this, and later made it seem like it really was no big deal.
“I felt normal,” he said. “I know it’s been a while, but also for some reason it feels like it hasn’t.”
He then dug deep into his old school playlist, to LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” — released when Woods was just 14 years old — to emphasize the point.
“It’s pretty funny because one of my buddies texted me this morning (with) an old LL Cool J lyric: ‘Don’t call it a comeback; I been here for years.’
“I can’t wait to text him back.”
In other words, Woods doesn’t think he’s back because, in his mind, he never really left. Maybe the great ones have to think like that.
But the truth is, win No. 83 wasn’t like any before.
Even though there were only 18 players in the field — Woods, ironically, the lowest ranked of them, at 52, though he’s now jumped to 21 — it was among the most meaningful victories of his life.
That is because he hadn’t won a tournament anywhere in the world since a tabloid sex scandal in November 2009 drew a line in the sand of his career.
So wounded has Woods been in the ensuing 25 months — spiritually, losing his wife, economically, losing major sponors, and physically, with injuries to his left leg — that there were those who believed he’d never win again.
After he’d butchered a two-shot lead over the tenacious Zach Johnson going into the back nine on Sunday, suddenly trailing by one shot when Johnson birdied the 16th, the Tiger naysayers might have felt that familiar warm inner glow.
After all, Woods used to be golf’s greatest closer, but the deconstructed Tiger had forgotten how.
He’d made a breathtaking run at the Masters in April, only to retreat when a 15th major beckoned. He had the second-round lead at the Australian Open three weeks ago but again stumbled to finish third.
But this time was different.
“I felt very good about my game; that’s the difference,” he said.
Woods has been growing in stature since late August, when he finally became healthy enough — and his life stable enough — to allow concentrated work on a game that had become as unreliable as it was unrecognizable.
Beginning with the Frys.com Open in October and continuing through the Australian Open, to the Presidents Cup — where he played far better than his 2-3 record indicated — and finally to here, where only a recalcitrant putter allowed the competition to stay close, he knew he was getting better with each passing round.
So when he stepped to the 17th tee, it was with a confidence in his golf swing that had been missing for at least two years.
He stuck a 9-iron to 15 feet and, after Johnson’s effort from 20 feet grazed the hole, tied the lead.
On the 18th, Woods hit a perfect 3-iron that flew forever, then another high-arcing 9-iron that found its mark. Then, from 7 feet, he remembered the champion he used to be.
“When the pressure was on the most, the last two holes, I hit three of the best shots I hit all week,” he said. “That’s very exciting for me.
“I pulled it off with one down, two to go. To go birdie-birdie is as good as it gets.”
As his extended entourage circled him with hugs and back slaps, there were those who yelled from outside the gallery ropes that Woods was back.
Perhaps that’s the temptation at Sherwood, to draw long bows. His new caddie, Joe LaCava, was more circumspect.
“He knows it’s not a (full field); he knows it’s not the Masters,” he said. “But, still, winning is winning, and we beat 17 really good players on a tough golf course in tough conditions.
"It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if he lost and it’s not the end of the world that he won.”
Still, the significance of ending a 26-tournament losing streak wasn’t lost on Woods’ peers.
“Nothing bad can come from this,” said Australian Jason Day, who dedicated himself to golf after reading a book on Woods. “He hasn’t won for two years and it just feels like it’s been too long. Golf needs him back.”
Steve Stricker, who’s a friend, said he knew Woods would win again once he “got the mind clear” and began seriously working on his game, but cautioned against reading too much into one win.
“I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to get to where he was before because he was so dominant,” he said. “He played so good for those stretches that I don’t know if we’ll ever see it again from anyone. That was un-human-like at times.
“I’m not saying that he can’t. I’m sure he thinks he can get back to that.”
He knows Woods too well. Woods joked that next year he’d like to get himself on the ballot for Comeback Player of the Year. But be sure, with a game that’s quickly evolving into something very good, his goals will be loftier.
The closest Woods came to revealing raw emotions on Sunday evening came when he spoke about the leg surgeries that sidelined him in 2008 and again this year.
“It was really tough, probably more difficult than people can imagine,” he said. “I don’t like missing major championships. I really don’t.”
Woods never has abandoned his dream as a little boy: to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. And so the new year inevitably will bring expectations that the Tiger of old will, at 37, magically reappear.
Maybe that’s unreal, but it certainly doesn’t seem to bother Woods.
“There is always expectations,” he said. “But, so be it.”
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