MELBOURNE, Australia – The trophy case for Tiger Woods is collecting dust.
He finally gave the big crowds at Victoria Golf Club something to cheer in the final hour of the Australian Masters by making two eagles in a four-hole stretch and closing with a 6-under 65 to get his name on the leaderboard for the first time all weekend.
At one point he was two shots behind, but Woods knew better. There was no point in sticking around. This tournament was going to be like so many others in a season that can’t end soon enough. He stuffed his golf clubs into the trunk of a black sedan waiting to take him to the airport so he could head home.
For the first time in his career, Woods is no longer the defending champion of anything, anywhere in the world.
“I tried all week,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t do it. I didn’t play good enough. Didn’t make enough putts. That’s what happens.”
When he won the Australian Masters a year ago at Kingston Heath, it was his 82nd victory around the world.
That remains his last.
Twelve days later, Woods ran his SUV over a fire hydrant and into a tree, and it wasn’t long before allegations of infidelity came gushing out. What followed was a year not many could have expected. He sat out for nearly five months, including two months in a rehabilitation clinic. He changed swing coaches. His wife divorced him.
And he didn’t win a single tournament – not even close.
Stuart Appleby made it official an hour later when he birdied the last two holes for his own 65, which turned into a one-shot victory when Adam Bland missed a 10-foot eagle putt on the last hole that would have forced a playoff.
Woods finished alone in fourth, recording consecutive top 10s for the first time all year. He finished three shots behind, the closest he has been to a winner since he was three back of Graeme McDowell at the U.S. Open.
Perhaps it was only fitting that Appleby posed with the crystal trophy before thousands who stuck around for the ceremony.
Tournament organizers, determined to raise the profile of the Australian Masters by bringing it world renowned players, signed up Sergio Garcia in the spring and added Camilo Villegas, Kapalua winner Geoff Ogilvy and Robert Allenby, the highest-ranked Australian. Woods also returned to defend his title.
Their faces were on the promotional posters around Melbourne. They were the guests at the gala dinner. Appleby wasn’t even invited to take part in a press conference before the tournament, even though he got his name in the PGA Tour record book this year by becoming only the second player to close with a 59, at The Greenbrier Classic.
“I noticed it, but it was not even close to annoying me,” Appleby said Sunday after closing with a 6-under 65 for a one-shot victory. “I have an ego, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they haven’t got me up there?’ It’s the Tiger Woods show, and the others. You know what? It didn’t play out that way.”
Woods still has one tournament left in 2010. After two weeks at home – including Thanksgiving, the day his troubles began – he hosts the Chevron World Challenge with a world-class field of 18 players. Woods has not lost at Sherwood since 2005.
He feels his game is coming around under Sean Foley, although he only sees patches of it for now, such as the final six holes he played at Victoria, or the end of his Ryder Cup singles match when he played the final seven holes in 7-under par.
“It’s coming in streaks,” Woods said. “I played like this in the Ryder Cup, got into a streak there, went pretty low for 15 holes. This is very similar to that. I just need to get it for all 18 holes, and eventually, for all 72. The streaks are longer now.”
How much longer will it take? Woods laughed.
“Hopefully, in two weeks at Chevron,” he said.
The culprit at the Australian Masters, as has been the case for so much of the year, was his putting. On greens that were slower than he realized – even tougher with weekend rain and cloud cover – Woods finally switched putters.
He ditched his trusted Scotty Cameron for a Nike Method, a heel-shafted putter that he practices with at home. It helps him get a little more pace on the ball, which is why he switched to a similar Nike putter for three rounds at the British Open.
Both times, the result was not inspiring.
Woods missed two par putts inside 4 feet on the front nine Sunday, falling as many as 12 shots behind. The finish he put together only looked good for the final score.
“I struggled this week with the speed of the greens,” he said.
Appleby had no such trouble, especially at the end. He rallied from a seven-shot deficit in the final round, stayed in the game by making a 30-foot par putt on the 16th, pulled ahead with a 25-foot birdie on the 17th and two-putted for birdie on the final hole.
It was a big win for Appleby, every bit as important as The Greenbrier, for different reasons. It had been nine years since he last won on Australian soil, and his victory Sunday gave him a sweep of the biggest tournaments Down Under. He already had won the Australian PGA Championship and the Australian Open.
And there’s nothing better than winning at home.
“We play around the world for big money and big tournaments and big fancy ratings and everything like that,” he said. “But you come home to Australia, and it’s real. That’s probably hurt me too many times, really wanting to win.”
Right now, Woods would take a win just about anywhere.