With eight holes to play on Sunday at Sherwood, Tiger Woods was ready to start his victory lap on his way to the winner’s circle, the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, an 18-man annual cash grab that benefits his foundation (and the pockets of top PGA Tour players). Woods had a four-shot lead, with his only challenger being the scrappy Zach Johnson. What could go wrong?
The stage was set for Tiger to win triumphantly as he said goodbye to Southern California — since the event moves to Florida, Woods’ adopted home state beginning next year.
Don’t ever count out Zach Johnson, though. Seriously.
I wasn’t even going to tune in because I assumed Woods would bore me to nap as he lapped the field, but then I saw Zach was trying to stage a little comeback with back-to-back birdies on nos. 11 and 12. So I thought about watching. And FOX wasn’t showing the Seahawks vs. ‘Niners game, so I was stuck with golf or watching the Giants lose.
Oh, noes! A bogey on no. 14 for Tiger! The gap had closed to only a single stroke. Now it was a ball game.
Zach played the reachable-in-two par-5 16th in standard Zach Johnson style. He played it as a three-shot hole, teeing off with a hybrid and then laying up his second to a distance where he could wedge it in comfortably. He almost holed out for eagle.
Similar situation on no. 17. Zach went flag hunting and he nearly aced the par-3, but it burned the edge of the cup and left him with a three-and-a-half-footer for birdie. Meanwhile, Tiger knocked his tee shot pin-high about 20 feet and missed his putt for birdie. Zach rolled his in to tie it up at 13-under as he and Woods headed to the 72nd hole.
I thought to myself, damn, Zach is really going at the pins and looks like he’s going to hole one out, but he’ll probably run out of holes first. No joke. You could just tell he was that dialed in.
Tiger would still win, though, right? IT WAS FATED. After all, he’d won five times this year (at real tournaments), but Zach had notched one himself, the BMW Championship and he almost had a multiple-win 2013 season (if he hadn’t had lost to Jordan Spieth in a playoff at the John Deere Classic).
Good ol’ Zach found the fairway on 18, while Woods was in the deep rough at Sherwood off the tee. Then, Zach hit one of the worst pressure shots I — or anyone — had ever seen from a pro into the hazard guarding the 18th green. Yikes. Game over, right? Nope. Woods’ approach found a bunker and it certainly wasn’t an automatic up-and-down.
Plus, Zach did something amazing, something you do to win golf tournaments — he jarred his wedge shot from 58 yards in the drop zone. Standard par!
Even Tiger reacted with a big grin. What else can you do?
Tiger saved par from the bunker, so now it was playoff time, and the momentum was with Zach as the pair re-played the 18th.
After the heroic shots in regulation, Zach won with a ho-hum par, as Tiger missed a four-footer to save par from the same bunker he found in regulation.
“Today was pretty boring early and then there was a bit too much drama at the end there,” said Johnson. “I feel fortunate and somewhat lucky to be sitting here as a champion.”
What the hell happened on your second shot on 18 in regulation? And what were you thinking as you walked to the drop area?
“Well, I was upset,” said Zach, who was beaten by Tiger at this event two years ago. “You know, I mean I had I don’t want to say an awkward yardage, but I had‑‑ I was in between clubs. And certainly saw his shot. You know, very hard shot. End up in the bunker down there. I assumed it was in the bunker and then when I walked up there it was. It looked to me like it was going to be a very, very difficult 4 for him.
“So once my ball was in the hazard, my whole process was just, I mean I’m trying to get somewhat around the hole and make a 5. You know, it wasn’t exactly a full‑wedge shot, but it was one that I could be aggressive with. And 58 yards, trying to hit it about 52, 53, and we saw what it did.
“Shouldn’t have been in that position, but I’ll learn from it. I didn’t complete my back swing on my second shot, and as a result, miss‑hit it and everything. It was just bad. Just bad. (Laughs). I mean that was the worst shot I hit all day. Wasn’t even close to being‑‑ there was no question. It was probably the worst I hit all week.”
Well, he made up for it with the best of the week.
“You want to play with him and you want to be with him coming down the stretch on a Sunday,” said Zach. “I mean that’s just what you want as a competitor. That’s what I want as a competitor. I mean I want to play against the best. He’s the best I’ve ever played with. And I want to put myself in that position. I’ve been in it, I don’t know how many times, twice here and a handful of times on Tour.
“I like playing with him. He’s a friend. He seems to bring out the worst and the best in you, you know. But I love that. I’m going to learn from it, and I learn from him, once again because he’s the best player that’s ever played in my opinion.
“You know, it’s nothing more than that. I mean I’m just trying to compete. I feel great out there. Like you said, if I win, I win. If I lose, I lose. That’s kind of simple, but that’s kind of the way I approached today. I just like to compete and being in those situations where you get into holes have you to execute, you have to hit a shot. And that’s just fun, even if you shank it.”
Tiger gave Zach his due and said he was still happy with his year despite the disappointing loss.
“I don’t know how the iron shots on 16 and 17 that Zach hit didn’t go in the hole,” said Woods. “He really hit the ball well coming in. And he got me.
“I think everyone was pretty entertained.”
Tiger said he’s still looking forward to 2014, where he’ll open his year on the PGA Tour in San Diego at the Farmers Insurance Open, which he won for the eighth time earlier this year. He’s excited about the way he’s driving the ball with his new Nike Covert 2.0 driver, with a heavier shaft — that’s made all the difference.
“It was a pretty damn good year,” said Woods. “Five wins at some pretty good venues. I’m pleased with the year.”
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)