Woods looking back to his best

Win at Doral on Sunday evening moves world number two closer to Sam Snead in career titles



On the second hole at the Blue Monster on Sunday, Tiger Woods drained a 19-foot putt for birdie. When at last the applause died down, Graeme McDowell stood over a 7-footer for birdie that suddenly looked twice as long. He rolled it in to remain three strokes behind Woods, and as he walked off the green, he made eye contact with a friend and said, “We’re not playing for second place here.”

McDowell’s mettle was moving, albeit misplaced. McDowell, who opened with a birdie, could be forgiven for believing that pluck could pull him through in a final-round duel against Woods. At the 2010 World Challenge, McDowell came from four strokes back, the same deficit he faced at Sunday’s start, to tie Woods, whom he then dispatched in a playoff.

But the Woods he beat then was not the same player who grabbed a share of the lead in the first round of the Cadillac Championship and held onto it like a guard dog to a pant leg. After four years of rehabilitating injuries and then his swing, Woods is playing — and especially putting — like the player who averaged six tour titles a season in the three years before McDowell turned professional in 2002.

With a closing one-under-par 71, Woods claimed his 76th PGA Tour title, and his first World Golf Championships event since 2009. At 19-under 269, Woods finished two strokes ahead of Steve Stricker, who posted a 68.

Five strokes back, in a four-way tie for third, were Sergio García (69), Phil Mickelson (71), McDowell (72) and Adam Scott, whose final-round 64 was the low score of the week.

Rory McIlroy, the world number one, who opened the tournament feeling lost because of a faulty swing, finished with a 65, the second-lowest round of the day, which catapulted him into a four-way tie for eighth at 278.

While McIlroy marvelled at what a difference a week can make, Woods, the world number two, reflected on how his fortunes have turned in the last year. In the final round of this tournament last year, he withdrew on the 12th hole because of a recurring Achilles ’ tendon injury.

“It’s nice to be healthy,” Woods said. “I was struggling there for a while.”

Woods has won 5 of his last 19 official tour starts dating to the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his next start after his 2012 withdrawal from this event. This year, he has won two of his three stroke-play appearances on tour, but he laughed when it was suggested that his four-stroke victory at the Farmers Insurance Open and Sunday’s victory were stress-free.

“Stress-free?” Woods said, laughing. “Did you not see 18?”

On the 18th, a par 4 with teeth as sharp as ever, Woods drove into the rough, flirted with the water on his approach and settled for a bogey after a chip and two putts. Mickelson also bogeyed the hole, while McDowell carded a six.

In pulling away from a field that featured 19 of the top 20 players in the world, Woods drew closer to Sam Snead, the career leader in tour titles with 82. Snead was six days past his 45th birthday when he won his 76th event. Woods reached that victory total at 37 years 2 months 10 days.

A few of the golfers Woods left in his rearview mirror have had their best years during his fallow period. Since 2010, Stricker has five victories, a total Woods matched Sunday. McDowell, Mickelson and McIlroy have combined for four major titles since Woods won his 14th, at the 2008 US Open.

Stricker, who was playing with Mickelson in the group directly ahead of Woods, has been a witness over the years to Woods’s playing at close to his best, his better and his most excellent, so he harboured no illusions about a Woods stumble in the final round.

“You don’t have a lot of — what’s the right word? — belief that he’s going to come back to the field, I guess,” Stricker said. “He’s been so solid with 54-hole leads over his career that you just don’t think he’s going to come back. And he didn’t, again.”

Woods has won 41 of 43 times when holding the 54-hole lead outright. He is golf’s answer to Mariano Rivera, so it was fitting that his latest front-running victory came on the same weekend when Rivera, the Yankees ’ closer, announced that this baseball season would be his last.

“I enjoy being there,” Woods said. “That’s why I work my tail off and lift all those weights, hit all those balls and spend those countless hours out there — to be in that position.”

Woods’s first and only true putting guru was his father, Earl. Since Earl’s death in 2006, Woods has gotten by on the greens with a little help from his friends. On Wednesday, he received an impromptu putting tutorial from Stricker, who happened to be on the practice green when Woods showed up.

After Stricker adjusted Woods’s alignment, Woods went out and had 100 putts in four rounds, five fewer than Ben Crenshaw took when he won here in 1988. Woods joked that now he knows why Stricker always seems so happy.

“I made my share of putts this week,” Woods said, “and it felt good.”

Of the 19-footer on the second hole, Woods said: “It was important to make that. Graeme hits it stiff there, I need to answer.”

McDowell said: “The way Tiger was playing, I guess I was always in chase mode. I was trying to make it happen instead of letting it flow.”

In other words, Sunday was like yesterday once more on the PGA Tour. - New York Times Service