Tiger's dramatic win simply part of his 'process'

Tiger Woods acknowledges the fans while celebrating victory on the 18th and final hole of the Chevron World Challenge.

Tiger Woods acknowledges the fans while celebrating victory on the 18th and final hole of the Chevron World Challenge.

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THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Tiger Woods’ success will ultimately be determined not by his wins in December, but the ones that occur in April, June, July and August, at golf’s Grand Slam events. His thrilling victory at the Chevron World Challenge was an important part of the “process” that he loves to speak about, though.

You could see it in his expression. Woods’ head was down, his hands tucked deep into his pockets, as he left Sherwood Country Club’s 16th green. Yes, the Chevron is an exhibition, just 18 players competing for a ton of money and world-ranking points before the holiday season. Woods wasn’t taking this one lightly, though.

Zach Johnson had just birdied the par-5 16th to put Woods a stroke behind with two holes remaining. Johnson’s birdie had been a rare highlight on a day full of grinding, not giggling.

The scene surrounding Woods' quest for his first win in two-plus years was typical. Cars lined up outside Sherwood Country Club more than an hour before his tee time, filled with fans hoping to see this exhibition transformed into a milestone. Only a Woods victory could do that. It’s why people scrambled through dirt and over hills, climbed rocks and sprinted down cart paths, all to catch a glimpse of Woods’ potential return to the top.

Woods’ golf was not his vintage Sunday stuff, though. His swing and putting stroke weren’t sharp, but he’d done enough to keep himself in contention. He built a two-shot lead with birdies on the back nine’s first two holes, only to give it away.

Then Woods did what he does best. Two holes, two 9-irons and two clutch putts later, everyone got what they wanted. Woods hit a 9-iron from 172 yards on the par-3 17th, then sank a 15-foot birdie putt after Johnson missed from a similar distance. A stinger 3-iron off the 18th tee set up another 9-iron shot, this one from 158 yards, on Sherwood’s final hole.

Woods watched his ball in mid-air, walking down the fairway with both hands holding the club chest-high, perpendicular to the ground. His ball landed inside Johnson’s, which was about 12 feet from the hole. Woods approached the green with his left hand jammed in his pocket and his right loosely gripping his club, gently twirling it as he strode. Ho-hum.

There were both gasps and cheers when Johnson missed his birdie putt. Some lamented his failed attempt. Most were eager for the impending result, the win that would end a drought that must have seemed interminable to Woods. He holed his 8-foot putt for a final-round 69 and a one-shot victory over Johnson. Woods finished at 10-under 278 (69-67-73-69).

“It feels awesome, whatever it is,” Woods said, when asked how the win felt.

No matter your feelings on Woods, both the man and the golfer, this win adds to the anticipation for the 2012 season. Rory McIlroy also won Sunday, at the Hong Kong Open, as did Lee Westwood, who won the Nedbank Challenge, a limited-field event in South Africa. Luke Donald has become a consistent presence at No. 1, emboldened by his Disney win that snatched the PGA Tour money title from Webb Simpson. They all figure to play large roles in what could be a great drama in 2012.

If Woods returns to form, and begins to win consistently, they’ll all play supporting roles, though. Yes, he'll have to win against deeper fields and at tougher tracks. Woods said he still has work to do as he continues to master his new swing built under Sean Foley’s high-tech tutelage, illustrated by his exaggerated “over the top” practice swings throughout the week.

“Over the top” is nothing new with Woods. Hyperbole surrounds everything he does. One thing is certain, though.

“Winning means everything to him, whether it’s an 18-man field or Augusta National,” his caddie, Joe LaCava, said. “He wants to win. He knows it’s not 144 guys, and 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.”

Woods' old swing emerged under Sunday's pressure, but he summoned his best shots at the most important time. More importantly, the mind is back in old form. Woods said he felt "nothing" when he contended at last month’s Australian Open, just the way it’s supposed to be.

He showed his strength several times Sunday. Many of the players in the star-studded Chevron field were either jet-lagged, burnt-out or indifferent after a long season, but Woods wasn’t one of them. He hung tough as he struggled with his game in the middle of the round.

"Under the gun I kind of got back into an old pattern," Woods said. "When the pressure was on the most the last two holes, I hit three of the best shots I hit all week. That's very exciting to me."

Woods started the final round one shot behind Johnson, who’d holed his approach to the final hole Saturday for an eagle-2. He was tied with Johnson at the turn, then birdied the next two holes to take a two-shot lead. They were tied again just two holes later.

Woods bogeyed the par-3 12th after a double-crossed tee shot, then pushed his second shot right and short of the green on the par-5 13th. He chipped to 8 feet, but missed the birdie putt after Johnson made one from 10 feet. They both parred the next two holes before Johnson birdied the 16th.

We’d seen Woods fall short here last year. He started the final round of last year’s Chevron with a four-shot lead, only to watch Graeme McDowell whittle away at his advantage. Woods hit his approach to Sherwood’s 18th to 3 feet feet, but McDowell holed a 20-footer to force a playoff, then won with a similar-length putt on the next hole. This year was different.

“I’ve been along for the ride on a few (victories), and it’s very nice,” LaCava said. “The poor guy couldn’t make a putt in two days and he made the last two look easy. I told him, ‘It wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun.’ ”

Said Woods, “They all feel good, you know?”

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