Commentary

Wild ending to wacky '13 for Tiger

Updated: December 9, 2013, 7:11 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The sun shined, and although Sherwood Country Club was hardly any warmer Sunday, it did brighten the proceedings for the last Southern California playing of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.

Tournament host Tiger Woods and Zach Johnson obliged with a riveting finish that went to a sudden-death playoff, with the biggest crowd in tournament history soaking in the atmosphere, roaring its approval, perhaps disappointed in the final outcome.

[+] EnlargeZach Johnson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesZach Johnson holds his golf ball aloft after holing out from 58 yards for par on the 72nd hole of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. The shot proved to be key to push the tournament into extra holes, where Johnson held off Tiger Woods for the win.

But all the cheering was nothing compared to the noise that surrounded Woods in 2013.

Woods finished his year with a playoff loss to Johnson -- lipping out a par putt on the first extra hole -- and failed to add what would have been a sixth overall victory to what was otherwise a strong year in which he received PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.

"Pretty damn good year," Woods said afterward.

But never has a season with so much success been viewed with so much scorn.

Think about all the chatter that surrounded Woods as he climbed back to No. 1 in the world.

The spat with Sergio Garcia that turned ugly when the Spaniard's attempt at humor during a banquet went bad.

Three high-profile rules violations, all of which resulted in two-stroke penalties, and a fourth incident in which Woods was questioned about a lateral hazard drop at the Players Championship.

His public disclosure of a personal relationship with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.

The elbow injury suffered at the U.S. Open that caused him to miss two tournaments prior to the Open Championship.

Criticism from Golf Channel analyst and former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, who insinuated in an online story that Woods' rules issues were akin to cheating.

And another year, the fifth in a row, without adding to his major championship total of 14.

If any of that was bothering Woods as a 17th full year as a pro came to a conclusion, Woods wasn't saying. But he did acknowledge a break was welcome -- even though this was just his second tournament in the past two months -- and you wonder how much the seemingly endless turmoil took a toll.

"I've come off long breaks, I've come off surgeries, whatever it may be," he said. "I've had my share of offseasons, and I can tell you one thing, I'm looking forward to this one."

With Woods, there is always something it seems, and not even winning five times is enough to satisfy some.

In truth, the competition he now faces is keener than ever. Adam Scott won the Masters and three other tournaments worldwide, including two last month in Australia, barely missing out on a third. He has closed the gap on Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking and could make things interesting were he to win either of the next two PGA Tour events in Hawaii at the start of 2014.

Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship with a dazzling final round -- passing Woods along the way -- and won three times worldwide. Henrik Stenson also had three worldwide victories and became the first player to win the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai in the same season.

And yet, Woods had five victories to Stenson's three, won two European Tour events to Stenson's one and had also won the PGA Tour money title -- the same honor the Swede notched in Europe.

Woods didn't win a major, and that will gnaw at him and provide fuel for his detractors. But he did win the Players Championship, two World Golf Championships, as well as regular tour stops at Torrey Pines and Bay Hill.

"I'm very proud of my overall record, especially in the bigger events," Woods said. "I think my world golf record is pretty decent."

Sunday's final round of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge -- which next year is moving to Florida -- proved far more dramatic than Woods or anyone envisioned. He led Johnson by 4 strokes with eight holes to play, then inexplicably was unable to put the tournament away.

It was an exciting conclusion, one that Woods seemed to relish even as he saw his lead slip away. He appeared in control when Johnson hit his approach to the 18th green in the water -- only to see Johnson hole his next shot from the drop area for a par. That meant Woods had to get up and down to force a playoff, which he did.

The next time, Woods was unable to get up and down from the same bunker, and lamented a poor putting day. Other than the 10-under-par 62 Woods shot on Friday, he struggled on the greens.

That is simply part of the deal now with Woods, who celebrates his 38th birthday on Dec. 30. Perhaps more important is that he seems to have found a driver and a shaft he likes. Although he was not as strong off the tee Sunday, Woods hit 75 percent of his fairways for the week and 81 percent of the greens. That will always be a strong combination.

"I'm very pleased to find something off the tee there," he said. "The shaft has definitely made a big difference. Putting comes and goes. It is what it is. You have your good days and your bad days. Friday I made everything and a couple of these days I made a lot of midrange putts for pars. Today was one of those days where I just didn't make a lot."

Woods could take consolation in knowing that Johnson is a tough foe. He beat Woods down the stretch at the 2007 Masters, made winning here very difficult in 2011 -- Woods had to birdie the final two holes -- and then birdied four of the last eight holes on Sunday to force the playoff. (Woods has now lost his own tournament twice in playoffs, but has a total of five victories and 10 top-2s in 13 starts.)

As disappointing, perhaps, as it was for Woods to not close it out, Johnson -- save for the crazy approach to the 18th that found the water -- was strong down the stretch.

It made for a bit of an awkward ending, but the outcome, either way, should have little impact on Woods going forward. He's got six weeks until he resumes his schedule at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he defends his title at Torrey Pines.

By then, talk will have turned to getting his 80th PGA Tour victory and undoubtedly the quest for his 15th major championship.

"He's the one that keeps pushing the ceiling higher and he's the one who keeps raising the bar," Johnson said. "If he stays healthy -- and hopefully he does -- there's no telling what he can do. The guy never ceases to amaze me."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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