Graeme McDowell's victory not so silly

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The day began with so much promise, the opportunity to truly put the disappointments of a year gone bad into the rearview mirror while driving confidently into the future.

It ended with Tiger Woods watching in disbelief as his birdie putt to extend a sudden-death playoff slithered away from the hole, perhaps a fitting cap to his first winless season since … well, even he couldn't remember when, going all the way back to his childhood.

Usually it is Woods making the dramatic putts on the 72nd hole or winning playoffs or stepping on necks when others are down.

But on Sunday at the Chevron World Challenge, it was Woods who succumbed to U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell.

The Northern Irishman overcame a 4-shot deficit, then made two remarkable 20-foot birdie putts on the 18th green at Sherwood Country Club -- first in regulation, then in the playoff -- to deny the tournament host a much-needed victory in what turned into a thrilling duel.

In truth, a win in an offseason charity event -- albeit with world ranking points -- would not have proved all that much for Woods. It certainly would have been nice, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of confidence headed into the offseason.

The Chevron is the ultimate money grab, a late-season reward that pays a minimum of $140,000.

Players such as Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker were playing for the first time since the Ryder Cup; Matt Kuchar put his clubs away a week later after competing in the McGladrey Classic. "You hate to say you came to a tournament unprepared," Kuchar said. "But I came here unprepared."

Others, such as McDowell, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter, made the 16½-hour flight from Dubai to Los Angeles after competing in the Dubai World Championship. After the grind of finishing up the European Tour season, it would have been easy to mentally check out this week.

Then again, the field included 14 of the top 30 in the world, with the lowest-ranked player being No. 48 Stewart Cink.

And Woods was motivated to win, regardless, especially in light of the year he has endured.

"I think he's been kind of sneaking up on playing really good lately," Cink said. "And this is sort of a precursor for him of what is going to happen next year. Certainly for him this means a lot to be playing well here."

So it was in keeping with this strange year that Woods coughed up a 4-shot lead -- he had never before failed to win when leading by more than 2 strokes through 54 holes of any professional tournament.

Or that he watched somebody roll in a big putt on him, as McDowell did twice.

Or that he lost in a playoff, which Woods has not done since losing to Billy Mayfair in the 1998 Los Angeles Open -- the only other time Woods had ever been defeated in extra holes. His PGA Tour playoff record is 11-1.

Perhaps most remarkable of all was to hear Woods talk about being proud in defeat. Inviting Rory Sabbatini to his new digs in Jupiter, Fla., would seem more likely.

"It was a great week even though I didn't win," Woods said. "I'm proud of today even though I lost."


"Because I putted awful starting out. I missed three short putts, which I don't do. Then I lost my swing in the middle part of the round, and pieced it back together again piece by piece. I was proud of that. I was very committed coming in, and hit some really, really good shots coming in, which was good.

"If anything, I thought that's when there might be a breakdown, but I was very pleased that I was able to put that back together then."

After opening the tournament with rounds of 65-66-68, Woods shot 1-over-par 73 on a day when par-72 would have gotten the job done.

He made a double-bogey on a par-5 after having played them in 12 under par through three rounds. And he suffered through the aforementioned putting issues that crept into his game.

As Woods has been lamenting, he's been unable to put 72 holes together. And the pressure of a tournament title being on the line put the work he's been doing with instructor Sean Foley to the test.

"Even though I lost, and made countless mistakes in the middle part of the round, it said a lot for me to come back and put my swing back together again," he said. "I haven't done that yet, and I haven't done it down the stretch when I needed to the most. That's exciting for me to know that it was there when I needed it.

It might be a small consolation to Woods that he was going against the reigning U.S. Open champion whose victory caps an extraordinary year. Not only did McDowell win a major championship, but he won two other times on the European Tour, finished second in the Race to Dubai and holed the dramatic winning putt for Europe at the Ryder Cup.

And it all began here. McDowell, 30, has countless times acknowledged being the beneficiary of Woods' woes a year ago, when Tiger could not play in his own tournament due to the fallout from his personal issues.

McDowell got the spot in the field vacated by Woods, then took advantage by finishing second to Furyk. That earned him enough world ranking points to push him into the top 50 in the world -- and earn a Masters invitation.

Now he's ranked among the top 10 in the world, and got there by taking down Woods.

"It's been an amazing season," McDowell said. "I put that up there, to play with him this weekend and to do it against him, it's definitely another highlight of 2010. I'm just very proud of myself the way I've applied myself the last six weeks. It would have been pretty easy to just to kick back with the great things I've achieved this year.

"But to finish as strong as I have and to win twice in the last six weeks, I'm very proud of myself as well."

McDowell won in Spain, then went to play European Tour events in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai before coming here.

That was some journey, but none more involved than one navigated this year by Woods.

For the first time, he completed an entire season as a pro without a victory, capping a 12-month period that nobody could have seen coming.

But there is reason for optimism. A year ago, his life was in shambles. Two years ago, it was his left knee, meaning he was still recovering from surgery. Three years ago, unbeknownst to the world, he had blown out that left knee.

Now he's got seven weeks to prepare for what will presumably be his first tournament of 2011 at Torrey Pines -- apparently healthy in both mind and body.

"I'm just really excited about the offseason," he said. "I haven't been that way in awhile."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.