ORLANDO, Fla. – Forget the look of sheer relief, unbridled glee, steely vindication or whatever best describes Tiger Woods' first-blush reaction as it crossed his mug on the 18th green at Sherwood Country Club.
The more interesting expression flashed across the face of his final-round playing partner, Zach Johnson, who was stationed a few yards away.
As Woods cannily rolled in an eight-footer for birdie on the final hole to win the Chevron World Challenge, Johnson looked at caddie Damon Green with something close to a resigned smirk on his face, then shrugged.
Like most, Johnson figured Woods would come back and win at some point, and after 25 mostly brutal months, it finally happened Sunday night, at Johnson’s expense.
The circumstances – the last two seasons notwithstanding – looked all too familiar for anybody who has followed Woods’ career.
One stroke behind Johnson with two holes to play, Woods rolled in birdie putts on the last two holes to win for the first time in a career-long 749 days, signaling that to some degree, he's put his scandal, multiple injury issues and swing concerns behind him.
Sure, it was a no-cut boutique event with only 17 other players. It was unofficial and the money didn’t count. But at this point, winning a four-ball match at his home track would do wonders for his self-esteem and confidence, so the circumstances ought to make for a nervous off-season for his brethren. Has the party started again? In an uncharacteristic move, Woods' camp sent champagn to the media center afterward.
“Any different?” Woods said of the overdue victory vibe. “It feels great. It’s kind of hard for me to elaborate beyond that. I know it’s been awhile, but in some ways it feels like it hasn’t.”
By his standards, it had been forever.
Woods hasn’t won an official tournament since November, 2009, and while the Silly Season win won’t change his PGA Tour total, which still stands at 71, Woods said the best part was that Sunday's back nine felt like the proverbial riding of a bike. Though he has faltered numerous times over the two-year drought, including holding a share of the lead at the Masters on Sunday in April, he hadn’t completely forgotten how to deliver the goods when the familiar pressure mounted.
“It felt normal,” he said. “I felt very comfortable. I have been here so many times, I just feel very comfortable being in that position. Was I nervous? Absolutely. I am always nervous in that position, but I am comfortable in that position.”
Nobody is asserting that he’s all the way back – there were plenty of loose shots and signals on the weekend to insist otherwise -- but for the first time since before his celebrated crash, Woods made meaningful putts as the scrappy Johnson put all sorts of heat on him.
“If the man is healthy, that's paramount,” Johnson said. “I mean, he's the most experienced and the best player I've ever played with. In every situation, he knows how to execute and win.”
Never one to articulate his feelings, Woods had a hard time expressing what was at the fore of his emotions – be it satisfaction, relief or simple unmitigated joy.
“Whatever it is, it feels pretty good,” he said.
It ought to make Christmas, and his 36th birthday later this month, a bit more endurable. Otherwise, Woods would have faced two more months of scrutiny until his next start with growing doubts about his ability to produce under duress. Last year at the Chevron event, positioned to end his slump at 13 months, he blew a four-shot lead in the final round and lost in a playoff to Graeme McDowell.
McDowell knocked in a birdie on the final hole of regulation and another one on the first playoff hole at Sherwood and Woods couldn’t answer. This time, After Johnson birdied the 16th to take a one-shot lead, Woods was the one who poured in the birdies on the last two holes.
“I pulled it off, from one down with two to go, and to go birdie-birdie is as good as it gets,” he said.
After a season of scheduling fits and spurts because of injury and poor play, Woods seemed to gradually find some semblance of rhythm this fall, just in time to take an offseason seat. In other words, now that he’s won, the final sanctioned stroke-play event of the year in the States is in the books.
He was hardly wringing his hands about putting it in park for a while.
“Actually, I am not [disappointed], because I have pushed pretty hard,” he said. “I have taken very, very few days off. My mind and my body are wanting a little bit of a break. I wanna shut it down for a couple of weeks.”
The bounce from the win, unofficial or not, was more than just emotional. His stock had fallen so precipitously after starting the year at No. 2 in the world, he was in danger of not qualifying for the Chevron tournament – which he hosts -- by falling out of the top 50 at the eligibility deadline. But because the short-field Chevron event receives ranking points, the victory jumped him from 52nd to a projected 21st in this week’s rankings.
“When the pressure was on the most the last two holes,” Woods said, “I hit three of the best shots I hit all week and that’s very exciting for me.”
That was self-evident. When the winning putt rolled in on the 18th green, Woods screamed something the lip readers will have to decipher, conducted a familiar fist-pumping victory celebration, then shook Johnson’s hand.
“Immediate thoughts?” Woods said of the victorious putt. “I wasn’t really thinking. I think I was yelling.”
So was the crowd, which was at least as pumped as he was to have seen progress in his career reinvention, comeback, or whatever it ought to be called. Fans cheered “Tiger’s back” after the victory. Woods laughed when asked about it.
“One of my buddies texted me an old LL Cool J lyric: ‘Can’t call it a comeback, been here for years,’” Woods said.
Well, that’s hardly the unvarnished truth – there had been far more L’s than W’s lately, not to mention some MC Hammers, as he calls missing the cut. Woods has mostly been a non-factor for months, missing tournaments for months at a time and rarely contending when he was able-bodied enough to play. But if the putts on the last two holes are any indication, the 72nd-hole look on Johnson’s face could soon be making a comeback, just like Woods himself.
For the first time in forever, nearly everybody had the feeling that Woods would bury the winning putt, just like old times. It seemed like that old sense of the inevitable end was back.
That certainly would explain the expression on Johnson's face.
“In this game, I'm never surprised with the way the guys are able to execute and hit shots,” Johnson said. “I think he would be the epitome of that example.”