With this win, has he made the turn?
Everything about the scene Sunday looked familiar: The birdie putt on the 18th hole disappearing, the crowd erupting, Tiger Woods reacting with a roar and a roundhouse right, then his textbook fist pump.
It sure felt different, though. Not in a good way, or bad. Just different. Two years of a free-fall in public and professional purgatory has a tendency to change our outlook on things.
You can squawk - as some have - about the size and the quality of the field, the fact it was his own tournament benefiting his own foundation, played during golf’s Silly Season, on a cozy track where he’d won four times. This much seems clear, though: Winning the Chevron World Challenge was exactly what Woods needed.
Not long ago, Woods winning any event in early December would barely register as news; not winning was always a bigger deal. That was before Thanksgiving 2009, when his world was turned upside-down and shaken like a snow globe.
If that holiday served as the prelude to a prolonged stretch of personal suffering, which cost Woods his marriage, millions of dollars in endorsements, probably as many fans, and his vise-like grip on the world’s No. 1 ranking, Sunday’s victory is the best Christmas present he could have ever asked Santa for. Woods turns 36 Dec. 30, so call it an early birthday present, too.
It matters, not because of what happened over four days at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., but because of what might happen next year, and the years after. If golf is ever going to see any semblance of a ruthless, intimidating, dominating Tiger again, the comeback had to start somewhere, with that first victory since the scandal. Now he has it.
Granted, Woods beat only 17 others, and none of golf’s four highest-ranked players were there. But all 17 that were there had a better world ranking than Woods, although he somehow jumped 31 spots after the victory, from 52d to 21st.
If one were looking closely, there were signs pointing to an eventual win. Woods was third at the Australian Masters last month - his best stroke-play finish in a full-field event since the scandal - then backed up his quasi-controversial selection to the US Presidents Cup team with an impressive week, including a singles win over Aaron Baddeley.
As much as Woods has spoken - ad nauseam these past few years - about how close he felt he was to returning to form, his actions the past month or so were beginning to speak louder than his words. He seemed to be gaining comfort and confidence with the swing changes Sean Foley has implemented, and began making his share of putts.
Winning, one sensed, was inevitable.
Did you feel it? Were you like me? Since crashing his car and taking a few self-imposed sabbaticals from golf, the few times Woods played his way into contention, I fully expected him to make a mistake or miss a putt that would derail him. Every time. Maybe it was the golf gods handing down an appropriate sentence for acts of indiscretion. Compare that with the Woods from 1996-2009. If faced with a must-make shot, chip, or putt, didn’t he always come through? Every time?
Sunday was different. With Woods standing over a 6-footer on the 18th hole for a birdie and a one-stroke victory over Zach Johnson, I expected him to make the putt this time. Johnson did, too, a TV camera catching him giving an I-told-you-so nod to his caddie as soon as the putt dropped. Perhaps enough penance has been served.
It’s a process, he has maintained. Rebuilding a swing is like learning how to walk again, with predictable bumps along the way. Those who were counting on Woods to play at the same lofty level while he was going through so much turmoil lose sight of one of golf’s absolutes. The game is hard enough as is; when distractions are added, it’s more frustrating, less fun.
Now that the riddle of when Woods will ever win again has been solved, the focus shifts to 2012 and beyond, and whether he can reclaim his position. I can’t think of a better way for Woods to close 2011, going birdie-birdie on the final two holes to come from behind and beat a former major champion, tasting victory 749 days and 26 tournament starts since his last win.
His résumé suggests that he has been there and done that, plenty of times. His reaction suggests that it holds a deeper meaning than a trophy and a winner’s check for $1.2 million (which he donated to his foundation, incidentally).
Beginning with the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, Woods has won 95 times worldwide. With 14 majors, he has captured some of golf’s biggest tournaments. By taking the four-player Grand Slam of Golf seven times, he also has triumphed in some of the smallest.
How significant will win No. 95 end up being? We’re about to find out.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.