Tiger still can’t close it out

Since when does Tiger Woods stuff an iron on the last hole with the tournament on the line and not walk away with the trophy and winner‘s check?

Since when does the other guy upstage golf’s greatest closer by improbably draining a long putt, not once, but twice?

And since when is Woods unable to answer the challenge, yet walk off and say he’s “proud” of himself, “even though I lost”?

The same Woods who’s always dismissively characterizing finishing in second place as being the ‘first loser’.

How times have changed.

A chilly Sunday afternoon at Sherwood Country Club revealed that the old order of things in golf is definitely no more.

Old truths about Tiger Woods – or, “number two”, as Ian Poulter mischievously calls him – have given way to new ones; perhaps not forever, but for now.

The 72nd green is golf’s biggest stage.

Throughout his career, Woods has owned it: the putts in the twilight to win at Bay Hill, the unforgettable birdie to force a playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open; the list of his legendary deeds on the last green extends back to Woods’ unmatched amateur career.

We’ve come to expect magic from him in the cauldron.

The last time he wasn’t the star of that stage was at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, when Y.E. Yang made the birdie of his career, forcing Woods to cough up a third-round lead at a major for the first time.

I wondered back then what effect that slaying would have.

Soon after, Woods’ life descended in a tabloid hell and the gravitas of what Yang had done was lost.

But on Sunday at the Chevron World Challenge, Graeme McDowell — like Yang before him — refused to be intimidated by the legend of Tiger Woods.

He tenaciously chipped away at the four-shot deficit, a process greatly aided by Woods, who clearly felt the pressure of avoiding the first winless year of his career.

But what was most unforgettable after a scratchy back nine from both men was that Woods gave McDowell his best shot — a perfect 8 iron to three feet on the last — but, maybe for the first time, it wasn’t enough.

Instead, McDowell rolled in his 20-foot birdie putt, forcing a playoff, which he won by making another audacious long birdie putt then watching as Woods couldn’t answer him from 15 feet.

“Those are probably two of the greatest putts I’ve made,” said McDowell, whose confidence from winning the U.S. Open and closing out Europe’s Ryder Cup victory is still evident.

“They’re the kind of putts you make them and you really can’t believe it afterwards.

“I mean, they were the stuff of dreams. 2010 has been the stuff of dreams. “It’s been that kind of year.”

Unfortunately, it’s been the other kind of year for Woods.

Afterward he was — as is his wont — upbeat, accentuating the positives of a 1-over-par round of 73 that was torpedoed by three missed putts from inside five feet and a handful of bad swings and worse chips.

Much to his dismay, he managed to throw all of those undesirables into the mix on one hole, the relatively benign par-5 13th, taking double-bogey on a birdie hole.

“Even though I lost and made countless mistakes in the middle part of the round, it said a lot for me to come back and put my swing back together again,” he said.

“I haven’t done that yet, and I haven’t done it down the stretch when I needed to the most.

“That’s exciting for me to know that it was there when I needed it.”

For the first time in several years, Woods will have an off season where he’ll be able to work — with coach Sean Foley — on his game free of injury or paparrazi.

“I’m excited about this offseason,” he said.

The question now becomes who will we see at Torrey Pines in seven weeks?

For so long he was the one being chased, now he’s going to have to do the chasing.

Not just in world ranking points — Lee Westwood sent his own message about that battle when he won in South Africa by eight strokes — but in terms of his reputation.

“When you play alongside Tiger on a Sunday afternoon, you’re expecting great things from him,” McDowell said. “I was a little nervous.”

The Irihsman was too nice to throw his host at the Chevron World Challenge under the bus, so he didn’t much expand on how those great things never really came. But he thinks they might come again.

“He used to appear invincible,” McDowell said, “Of course, he’s made himself appear more human in the last 12 months.”

“(But) I think he’ll be back winning golf tournaments in 2011.

“I think he can play his way back into having that mystique again.

“He’s just got to do the talking with his golf clubs now.”