Tiger Woods put the finishing touches on a season he’s calling a success with a tie for fourth at his World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club.
It wasn’t his best work.
Apart from a majestic 3 wood on the par-5 16th from 252 yards that set up a too little, too late eagle, the only magic he could summon on a soggy Sunday afternoon came on the greens.
But because of indifferent iron play — distance control, once a staple of his arsenal, is now a mystery as wedges fly greens and elicit looks of bemused exasperation — too many of those well-holed putts were for par.
And pars — or the final round, 1-under-par 71 Woods turned in — were never going to be enough to reel in Graeme McDowell, who took six more putts over four rainy days yet still clipped Woods by eight shots to win here for the second time in three years.
“I struggled with my game a little bit this week,” Woods said, “I didn’t quite have it.”
Historically, it hasn’t mattered if he had it or not.
In 11 previous starts in one of Southern California’s most exclusive enclaves, Woods has won five times and finished runner-up four others.
Dole fruit and vegetable tycoon David Murdock may hold the deed to the place, but Woods has owned Sherwood.
Did he bring his A-game here in each of those wins? Of course not, but he won, anyway.
This week, though, with his 37th birthday four weeks away, Woods had less the look of a champion destined for a sixth win and more that of a working stiff punching the clock one last time before a long vacation.
“I need it,” he said of the six-week break he’ll be taking.
“It’s been a long year, and I’ve played a lot. Really looking forward to having nothing to do with golf for a few weeks — just put (the clubs) away, enjoy the holidays, be with my kids.”
It’s not to say Woods mailed this one in. He tried, as he always does. But it is to say that this World Challenge evolved like the second half of his season: He played well but not nearly well enough.
Perhaps it was because there wasn’t as much at stake this year, though he could have recouped a larger chunk of the $4 million he kicked in to keep the tournament, which benefits his foundation, alive.
In both 2010 and ’11, he came to these rolling hills — named Sherwood after Douglas Fairbanks shot Robin Hood here in 1922 — to show the world (and perhaps show himself) that he could win again after the scandal that changed everything.
Both tournaments were important to the Woods narrative. The pesky McDowell foiled him by draining two long putts in 2010 — the sort of impolite thing Woods usually did to others. And last year, he overcame Zach Johnson to get that not-won-since-the-scandal monkey off his back.
He credits last year’s World Challenge with propelling him to three wins this season.
The first two of those wins — at Bay Hill and, especially at Memorial — were impressive, harbingers, it seemed, for a return to past glories. But after the third triumph, at his AT&T National at Congressional Country Club — one that owed much to Bo Van Pelt’s inability to close — Woods stalled.
Lots of good (but not good enough to win) finishes.
And so Woods will have plenty of fat to chew on as he heads into his offseason before returning for what may turn out to be the most important season of his career.
Will he once again be golf’s king, or — as he enters a fifth winter since winning his last major — has his time passed?
“I still feel I have some of my best golf to play,” Woods insisted. “In order to do that, I had to be healthy, and this year I headed in the right direction.
“I’m very excited about next year.”
Woods is happy to report that the major changes to his Sean Foley swing have been completed and that when he prepares for next season’s debut in Abu Dhabi — expected to be followed by an American debut at Torrey Pines — he won’t have “a laundry list” of things to work on.
But though the list won’t be as long, it’s still substantial.
His game’s solid, as they like to say in golf, but there’s a nagging sense of something missing. Maybe it’s technical or maybe it’s an issue of trust, but as Woods’ short game and putting improved since the summer, his ball-striking has hit a plateau.
Short irons can’t find their target. And off the tee, Woods often sets up open, to play a big cut, yet pulls the shot.
Meanwhile, the specter of Rory McIlroy looms, so much so that a PGA Tour media official accidentally wrote McIlroy’s name in the winner’s box on Sunday.
It was interesting to hear McDowell respond when asked if he felt he could challenge his Northern Irish friend in the coming year.
“I’m not quite sure if I’ve got that type of game inside me,” he admitted. “He’s on another stratosphere from everyone else right now.”
For more than a decade, such lofty accolades were reserved for Woods.