Commentary

Chevron win good start for Tiger Woods

Updated: December 4, 2011, 10:59 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- If so inclined, there are certainly more than a few ways to poke holes in Tiger Woods' victory on Sunday -- his first anywhere in two years -- not the least of which is he didn't have to beat very many players.

The Chevron World Challenge is not an official PGA Tour event, a handful of golfers in the 18-player field are probably not as fully engaged as they might otherwise be, and the tournament benefits Woods' foundation, which means it is a week in which he is highly motivated, regardless of his well-chronicled winless streak.

After a tense back nine that saw him birdie the last two holes to defeat Zach Johnson on Sunday, nobody should be suggesting that the former No. 1 player in the world is immediately back to previous heights, that he's going to win the Grand Slam in 2012 or that he is even going to win multiple times following his 36th birthday later this month.

But he had to start somewhere, didn't he?

"Winning means everything to him, whether it's an 18-man field or Augusta National,'' said veteran caddie Joe LaCava, who has been on Woods' bag since October. "He wants to win and get in the winner's circle. He knows it's not 144 guys. He knows it's not the Masters.

"But still, winning is winning and you're beating 17 other really good players on a tough golf course in tough conditions. It means a lot. 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. But it does mean a lot.''

And that is probably the proper way to look at Woods' one-shot victory over Johnson that concluded with Woods sinking a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

After more than two years, a total of 749 days, a stretch of 26 tournaments, Tiger Woods has finally won again.

In the interim, his life went to hell due to an ugly scandal, he lost millions of dollars in endorsements, he got divorced, changed swing coaches, then endured injuries that caused him to miss four months and two major championships this year.

So, yeah, winning the Chevron isn't exactly the same as hoisting a major championship trophy. It's not the same as winning Bay Hill or Buick.

But for Woods, after all he's been through, and considering the scrutiny his game endures -- from shot to shot, hole to hole, tournament to tournament -- this was more than a nice little win at his charity tournament.

"Any different?'' Woods repeated when the question came about how it compares to his other victories -- which total 14 majors, 71 PGA Tour titles and 83 worldwide wins. "It feels great. … I know it's been a while, but also for some reason, it feels like it hasn't.

"When I was coming down the stretch there, I felt so comfortable. I felt comfortable in Oz [Australia]. I felt comfortable in Augusta. When I'm putting myself in those positions, it is comfortable.''

Woods was referring to his only other close calls this year: a tie for fourth at the Masters, where he was tied for the lead on the back nine on Sunday; and the Australian Open three weeks ago, where he held the second-round lead, coughed it up with a third-round 75, then rallied to finish third, two strokes out of a playoff.

But a bigger-picture view should be applied. Regardless of the stature of the tournament at Sherwood, it offered another example that Woods' game is progressing.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Allan Henry/US PresswireTiger Woods stood in the 18th fairway tied with Zach Johnson for the Chevron World Challenge lead. But Woods' approach shot got inside Johnson's and then Woods sank the birdie putt for his first victory since November 2009.

His 3-under-par 69 was his third score in the 60s this week and gives him nine in his past 11 stroke-play rounds. Unlike at various points in his comeback from personal woes and injury, Woods has been putting himself in the heat of contention, not to mention the pressure that came with the Presidents Cup two weeks ago.

And he admitted that the constant analysis of his game exacts a price.

"Yeah, I got it quite a bit -- basically every tournament I played in front of you guys [the media],'' he said. "Started out, you haven't won in six months, then a year, year and a half, two years.

"So it feels good to win a golf tournament, but that's not the reason I was playing. I'm not playing for you guys or anything like that. Just playing to get the W. At the beginning of the week, that's what I said, and I was able to get it.''

Perhaps it is the way he got it that will be of most importance to him.

Woods trailed Johnson by one stroke when the final round began after a third-round 73 that saw him bogey three of the par-5 holes.

He appeared to be in control after making birdies at the 10th and 11th holes to forge a two-shot advantage. With two par-5s to play, Woods figured to be in good shape.

But he missed the 12th green and failed to get up and down for par, then was tied when Johnson made a birdie at the 14th. And when Johnson -- who held off Woods to win the 2007 Masters -- outplayed Woods in the layup game at the par-5 16th, his birdie putt him one stroke ahead.

All Woods did then was birdie the final two holes, knocking a 9-iron to 15 that he converted for a birdie on the par-3 17th. And then at the 18th, after Johnson had hit his approach to 10 feet, Woods again hit a 9 iron, this time to 6 feet.

Like the old days, Woods drained the putt, this time to a fist pump and large roars of approval from a packed gallery surrounding the 18th hole.

Johnson could only watch at that point, nodding as if he expected it.

"If the man is healthy, that's paramount,'' Johnson said. "He's the most experienced and the best player I've ever played with. In every situation, he knows how to execute and win.''

Woods now gets to take some good vibes and a healthy dose of confidence into a mini offseason. It's been a hectic month for Woods, who went to work when finally able to try and get ready for the Presidents Cup.

He played a series of exhibitions in Asia and Australia prior to the Australian Open, then had a strong week -- if not a great record -- at the Presidents Cup. After a week off came the Chevron tournament, which he has now won five times.

How significant the victory is will continue to be the subject of conjecture, but it is interesting to note that the small field had 11 players from the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking -- and that doesn't include Woods, who moved up to 21st with the victory.

For comparison, the 12-player Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa won by No. 3 Lee Westwood on Sunday had six top-25 players; and the full-field Hong Kong Open on the European Tour won by Rory McIlroy had just three of the top 25.

Woods wasn't quibbling, and neither was LaCava, the long-time caddie to Fred Couples and for a short-time Dustin Johnson.

And it was LaCava who wrapped it up nicely, with a nod to some drama involving Woods and his former caddie, Steve Williams, earlier this year.

"I haven't won any, make sure of that first,'' LaCava said, a reference to Williams' comments after a victory caddying for Adam Scott in August. "But I've been along for the ride on a few and it's very nice.

"Poor guy couldn't make a putt in two days and then he made the last two look easy. It was a lot of fun. I told him, it wasn't easy, but it was a lot of fun.''

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com