So, the wait is over. Sort of. Tiger Woods ended his two-year winless drought with a one shot triumph over Zach Johnson in the season-ending Chevron World Challenge. But before everyone is quick to proclaim the former great one ‘back’, is it really accurate to do so?
A thrilling day of golf started off with Rory McIlroy claiming the UBS Hong Kong Open, his second strokeplay win in three starts. A holed bunker shot at the last the icing on the cake of another showcase of exemplary ballstriking from the 22 year-old. The victory – against a full field of 138 players – means McIlroy still has a chance of crushing Luke Donald’s hopes of combing the American and European Tour money lists, providing the Ulsterman can win the Dubai World Championship and Donald finish outside the top nine.
About six thousand miles away Lee Westwood put the finishing touches to his second straight win in the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa. A third round 62 – six shots better than the nearest low round of the day – meant Sunday was reduced to little more than a lap of honour for the man from Worksop. But, unlike McIlroy’s, and similar to Woods’, Westwood’s win came against a limited field of only eleven other men.
The purists out there claim that Woods’ victory is void, null, meaningless, simply because it was against seventeen other buddies in an end of season cash-grab. But the criteria for invitation to the Chevron World Challenge indicates it was more than this. The 18-man field aims to include the four current major winners; the top eleven from the official world golf rankings; the defending champion; and two special exemptions. Amongst those competing was: Keegan Bradley, winner of the year’s final Major, the US PGA Championship; Bill Haas, winner of the season-long Fed-Ex Cup; and multiple winners in 2011: Bubba Watson, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney, and Webb Simpson.
The field was similarly strong in South Africa. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel; British Open winner Darren Clarke; world number one Luke Donald; and two-time winner this year Martin Kaymer all competed for the $1.25 million dollar winner’s cheque. Yet there is no doubting the worthiness of Westwood’s win, even though it came against a smaller field. The trepidation regarding Woods’ comeback win stems from the belief that it was against a weakened field, when in reality the criteria for invitation to the Chevron is demanding. Organisers cannot help that the world’s top golfers may want to play somewhere else, and at the end of the day you can only beat what is in front of you. This was all Woods could do and he did it.
Aside from the endless argument of strength of competition, what stays in the mind about Woods’ win was the way he compiled it. Like he has done so many other times when he has teased us with a return to form, a dodgy round out of the four threatened to derail his quest. But this time the third round stutter was limited to a one over-par 73, fought out in blustery conditions where only five of the field broke 70. Woods was able to hang tough while over the past two years he seemed to disintegrate.
Sunday evening marked a battle of attrition between him and 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson. Johnson snuck ahead with a gutsy birdie on 16, but Woods’ ability to seize the moment returned on the final two holes. A drained fifteen footer for birdie on 17 preceded a majestic approach from a hanging lie on 18 that culminated in a holed curling downhill right-to-lefter.
Not only was the result different from what we’ve come to expect of Woods over the past two years, but so was the way he persevered, fought it out, and, finally, made some clutch shots when it mattered. Gone is the man who slumped out of the season’s final Major after 36 holes despite having the lead through five holes of the first round. Gone is the man who didn’t seemed to get an ounce of enjoyment from the game he once dominated.
Or is he? We will have to wait until next year to really find out. Woods gets his season underway at what appears now to be the real ‘fifth major’, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Likely to be in the field are Messrs Donald, Westwood, McIlroy and Kaymer. In much the same way that McIlroy’s win came last weekend, we will only be able to judge the full extent of Woods’ ‘return’ against a full field in the run up to Augusta.