By John Manley
There was something uncannily appropriate to the denouement represented by the Chevron World Challenge. This was the tournament that Graeme McDowell last year used to jumpstart his 2010 campaign. He finished second to Jim Furyk as a last-minute invitee at Sherwood Country Club, a performance that boosted McDowell into the World's Top 50 and secured for him entry into the Masters and the U.S. Open.
McDowell didn't win the Masters, but the U.S. Open fell into his hands in June, followed by Ryder Cup heroics and, last weekend, a showdown with the man whose defection at Chevron last year opened the door for McDowell - Tiger Woods.
With a year's wreckage behind him, Woods appeared to have turned a corner in his quest to reposition himself as the world's preeminent golfer. He established command in the first round amidst the elite 18-man field, shooting 65 to take a 1-stroke lead over McDowell and Rory McIlroy.
The lead increased to four strokes over McDowell on Friday, when Woods shot 66 to McDowell's 69. McIlroy carded 70 to fall five strokes behind Woods and, then, fell by the wayside entirely on Saturday, when he shot 73.
McDowell, meanwhile, kept Woods in his sights as both carded 68 on Saturday to set up Sunday's showdown. Woods had never before lost a tournament in which he led by as many as four strokes entering the final 18 holes. But, then, the world has turned upside down in the last 12 months.
McDowell, who has carved out a niche as a grinder, applied pressure with birdies on three of the first five holes on Sunday. Woods was betrayed by his putter, missing numerous short putts to ring up two early bogeys that wasted complementary birdies. The duo hit the turn with Woods's lead having shrunk to a mere stroke.
A 3-stroke swing then materialized at the 13th hole, with McDowell carding birdie while Woods stumbled his way to a double bogey, putting the Irishman up by two strokes. That was trimmed to a stroke when McDowell bogeyed 14.
Matters went unchanged until the pair reached 17, a par-3. McDowell's ball came to rest in unplayable long grass beyond the green. He then considered his choices and opted to scramble up a bluff that actually represented the tee box for the 18th hole, where he dropped his ball and hit off the same line he'd have had down below.
"It's just one of those head-scratching moments where you're thinking, 'What the hell am I going to do here?'" McDowell said.
What he did was loft a blind wedge shot that trickled to within a few feet of the cup for an easy putt that might constitute the sweetest bogey of his career. Woods missed another makeable birdie putt to allow McDowell to keep on even terms.
MANO A MANO
The par-4 18th hole loomed as, essentially, a match play situation, with Woods seemingly full of the rapture that used to cause opponents to unravel in his midst. Woods used a 3-wood to find the fairway and was then outdriven by McDowell, wielding a driver. Woods then stuck his second shot to within two feet of the pin, sending the gallery into near exultation. McDowell answered by placing his ball 20 feet left of the pin, where it rolled down a ridge to afford him a simpler putt than would have been the case had the ball stuck where it landed.
On the green, Steve Williams, Woods' caddie and perennial challenger for most hubristic individual known to the western world, all but declared his man the winner by removing his bib. McDowell, unflinchingly, rolled a left to right putt that plunked squarely into the cup and then unleashed a fist pump that would have been scored a "10" had it been judged.
All of a sudden, Woods' short putt seemed to grow in length. Regardless of his earlier travails, Woods sank it and a playoff was in order.
The second time around, McDowell approached the green first and landed his ball in almost the exact spot from which he'd putted only minutes earlier. Woods then rose to the challenge and flew his ball to a spot between McDowell's and the cup.
CALLING ISAAC NEWTON . . .
McDowell, at this time in a zone seemingly defiant of what had been the game's law of gravity when Woods is in attendance, calmly repeated his previous putt and put the onus on Woods to match him. The former World No. 1 slid his putt past the cup and McDowell had another feather to apply to his headdress.
"Tiger stuffs it in there in real time, and I didn't hit a particularly good 9-iron there, but gave myself a 20-foot look at it and poured it right in the middle," McDowell said of his initial putt at 18. "It was pretty amazing. To come back and do the exact same thing in the playoff was pretty sensational. Those are probably two of the greatest putts I've made.
"To play the weekend alongside Tiger, you know, it's a pretty special feeling to go out there four back and do the job. He was a little cold on the greens today, and I got off to a good start and gave myself the opportunities. I really decided to go out there today with the attitude today of just leaving it on the golf course."
McDowell also recognized that the lemons from Woods's harvest have been served up to him as lemonade.
"Obviously, I have to thank Chevron and the Tiger Woods Foundation for giving me the opportunity last year," McDowell said. "Would I be sitting here if I hadn't got into the tournament and been second last year? I don't know. All I know is I feel pretty lucky and fortunate to have been here last year, to have done it, and got myself the opportunity to achieve what I achieved this year.
"I had a joke with Tiger yesterday, coming down the 18th fairway. I said, 'Few more people here this year. I really don't understand why.' He told me to quit moaning, you know, because he had done me a favor last year, of course."
McDowell has one more outing on his 2010 agenda before calling it a year. He will team with Darren Clarke in the Shark Shootout beginning on Friday in Naples, Fla.
McIlroy claimed sole possession of fourth place with his 277 (66-70-73-68), which was five shots off the number posted by McDowell and Woods, and one behind Paul Casey. McIlroy actually lost a combined five strokes at 18 on Friday (double bogey) and Saturday (triple bogey). On Sunday, he birdied 14, 15, 16 and 17, and then . . . played 18 evenly. If only . . .
Padraig Harrington - remember him? - attempted to end the season with a victory, but came up short in South Africa, in the Nedbank Challenge at Gary Player Country Club in Sun City. A stellar opening round augured good things, but the second round showed why Lee Westwood is the ranking No. 1 in the world and Harrington isn't.
Harrington took his time to get fully cranked in the first round. He played the first seven holes evenly and then birdied each of the next four holes. Birdies at 14 and 15 followed, with another at 18 that erased a bogey at 17, and yielded a round of 66 that gave him the first-round lead. But on Friday, after a beginning that saw him bogey the third hole, Harrington had no answer, save for a birdie at the ninth. He shot even-par 72 both then and Saturday, as Westwood stole away with rounds of 64 and 71.
Sunday began with Harrington seven strokes behind Westwood, a gap that widened to 14 just 18 holes later. Harrington never found a rhythm on Sunday and shot 75, while Westwood carded 68 and cruised to an 8-stroke victory over Tim Clark. Harrington shared seventh place with Robert Allenby.