McDowell outduels Woods in Chevron playoff

Graeme McDowell during the final round of the Chevron World Challenge.

Graeme McDowell during the final round of the Chevron World Challenge.

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – The unlikely comeback. The great escape from trouble. The clutch putts at the end.

Tiger Woods was back on a familiar stage Sunday, with one big difference.

He was a witness, not a winner.

Graeme McDowell upstaged Woods in the Chevron World Challenge with a performance so typical of his dream season. The U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach, the hero of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, McDowell came up with another great moment in a year filled with them.

Woods stuffed an 8-iron to inside 3 feet on the 18th hole at Sherwood for what looked like a sure victory when McDowell rammed in a 20-foot birdie putt to force a sudden-death playoff.

Then, McDowell made a similar putt from about 25 feet on the same hole in the playoff to win.

“Those are probably two of the greatest putts I’ve made,” McDowell said, pausing to step out of the moment. He made a few good ones at Pebble Beach. There was that 15-foot birdie putt in the Ryder Cup that led to a European victory.

On second thought ...

“Holed a couple of nice putts this year,” he continued, smiling. “But they were certainly up there. To play the weekend alongside Tiger, it’s a pretty special feeling to go out there four back and do the job.”

It was an unofficial victory, but still a historic moment.

No one had ever beaten Woods when trailing by three shots or more going into the final round. It had been 12 years since anyone had topped Woods in a playoff on home soil.

If there was a time for it all to unravel for Woods, it’s only fitting it would be in his final round of a troublesome year.

He began the season in an addiction clinic in Mississippi, the fallout of being caught cheating on his wife. In the eight months since he returned to golf, Woods changed swing coaches, was divorced from his wife and never once contended in a tournament.

That changed at his own tournament, on a course where he had won four times.

But he ran into the wrong guy.

McDowell has his own reputation as a tough customer down the stretch, and he showed why. Even though his two birdies on the 18th hole made the difference, he might have won this tournament with a bogey.

With a one-shot lead, McDowell pulled his 8-iron into hay so deep that he had to take a one-stroke penalty and find a good place to drop it. He wound up on the 18th tee, and hit a risky chip over the tree to about 7 feet. If Woods made his birdie or McDowell missed his putt, Woods would take a one-shot lead to the 18th.

Woods missed. McDowell made.

“It’s just one of those head-scratching moments where you’re thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do here?’” McDowell said. “Between myself and my caddie, we worked out the less of two evils. I made the right decision and managed to get it done there and hole a clutch putt, which set up the opportunity in the last.”

McDowell, who closed with a 69 and finished at 16-under 272, won $1.2 million and moved to No. 7 in the world. He won for the fourth time, along with victories in Spain and Wales, and the biggest one up the coast at Pebble Beach.

“They’re the kind of putts that you make them, and you can’t really believe it afterward,” McDowell said. “They were the stuff of dreams – 2010 has been the stuff of dreams. It’s been that kind of year.”

To appreciate what kind of year it has been for Woods is to listen to him reflect in the moments after a crushing loss.

“It was a great week, even though I didn’t win,” said Woods, who closed with a 73.

He is getting closer to figuring out his new swing, and this week was a good sign. Despite the loss, Woods led after each of the first three rounds. In contention for the first time all year on the back nine Sunday brought back pressure, and Woods invariably slipped into some old swing flaws that cost him dearly.

He also missed three putts inside 6 feet on the opening four holes, and another putt from about that range on the 13th.

Through it all, he still gave himself a chance to win.

“I had to battle through it,” Woods said.

The year behind him, Woods had reason to look ahead. His peers noticed a change in his swing, his demeanor and his game throughout the week. Woods was headed home to Florida for nearly two months of practice before starting a new season that can’t get here soon enough.

“The way I’m playing right now, yeah, I would like to continue playing,” Woods said. “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.”

It was great theater. And for the first time all year, Woods was part of the act, even if he wound up in a supporting role.

“He used to appear invincible,” McDowell said. “Of course, he’s made himself appear more human in the last 12 months. But there’s something a bit special about his golf game, and I fully expect that mystique to return as the golf clubs start doing the talking again.”

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