|Woods lines up on No. 18 at Sherwood CC, where he sinks a birdie to win the '11 Chevron title. (Getty Images)|
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Sure, Tiger Woods could probably scare up a comparable field by rounding up his neighbors in the Jupiter, Fla., area, where about half the PGA Tour lives these days, and betting a few shillings at his new home track.
Winner pays for the beer and pretzels. And forks over for the cart fee.
But whatever the victory at the unofficial Chevron World Challenge was worth Sunday night in suburban Los Angeles, it had to be far more valuable for his image and self-esteem than beating the boys back home, which is about the only place he has won anything of late.
Glorified exhibition or not, it had been 25 months since Woods won anything sanctioned by a major tour. So when he made meaningful birdie putts on the last two holes to win with a walk-off birdie, both casual fans and cognescenti were left to plumb the impact of the victory.
Tiny field or not, when the cauldron of pressure was bubbling on high, he rolled in two birdie putts on the final holes to edge Zach Johnson by a shot, a popular ending at the last PGA Tour-sanctioned stroke-play event on U.S. soil this year. Unlike exactly 12 months earlier at the same event, when he really needed them, the putts finally dropped.
If the battle this week for European Tour supremacy is anywhere near as entertaining, with world Nos. 1 and 2 Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy poised to exchange haymakers for the Race to Dubai money title, then the heat ought to rise like oil from a Middle East gusher.
In this week's transoceanic Pond Scrum, European Tour correspondent John Huggan, already on site in Dubai, and CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling, minding the home front in the States, take measure of Woods' first victory of any sort since 2009 and set up this week's 1-2 punch in Dubai, where Donald is seeking to become the first member of both major tours to top each money list in the same year.
Forget the Dance at Disney, where Donald surged past earnings leader Webb Simpson on the season's final official day to win the tournament and season money title. Here comes Duel in Dubai.
OK, do what you do best, boys, and put it in 20/20 perspective. What should we make of Tiger Woods' victory in the Chevron World Challenge on Sunday night?
Elling: Wise man, the King. To me, the most important part of the week came in the final 15 minutes, when Woods knew he was down by a shot with two holes to play, and delivered three tactically correct full swings and two clutch birdie putts when he needed them. The rest of the day was full of ups and downs, left and rights, but at the end, it was vintage fare. Long time coming, and it has to do wonders for his state of mind.
Huggan: Is there anyone out there who doesn't want Woods to get back to something like his old form? I know I do. I want to see him taking on another generation of guys he hasn't already speared through the heart multiple times. If that comes to pass, 2012 is going to be a fascinating year of golf at the highest level.
Elling: Admittedly, I have a hard time cheering for that scenario, brother. There is a parade of players out there who are far more embraceable as far as engendering support.
Huggan: I pull for the golf first, well ahead of any golfers. Sadly -- and I'm sure you can say the same -- it's hard to have heroes when you do the job we do. Too much knowledge isn't always a good thing.
Elling: Yeah, that's exactly my point. The line of guys extends around the block that I would personally rather see win at this point. But we digress. What's it mean going forward? My crystal ball doesn't have dimples. His personal life remains completely murky and a key component, a big variable, in whether he cleans up his scorecard, so to speak. For all we know, he cruised into the San Fernando Valley after the win and partied with porn stars. No idea where his head is these days or if this sex addiction thing was real, or being taken seriously. It all factors into his long-term viability. After all, he turns 36 this month, so he's likely entering the back nine of his career. We've seen a parade of guys, including Harrington, Mickelson, Els and Furyk, all hit the wall at 40 in the past two seasons.
Huggan: Of course, you have missed noting one thing regarding the Woods victory. With only one European Tour member in the field -- Paul Casey -- does it really count as a real win?
Elling: Oh, that hardly escaped my notice. The Chevron World Challenge was worldly in name only. Woods nonetheless joked after the win that he wants to win the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2012. Kidding or not, he's setting his sights a bit low. What will it take for him to resume his role as the player to beat? Not much by his former standard. Seven players won two tournaments apiece this year on the PGA Tour. It's hardly a stretch to think that he can piece together his game in at least that many weeks.
Huggan: I see he is back to No. 21 in the world, which is higher than some major champions I could mention. But it would be wrong to read too much into this -- either good or bad -- at this time of year, when most guys are going through the motions and nothing more. I mean, are we saying that Nick Watney is a complete dud because he was last at the weekend? Of course not.
Elling: I get your point. Zach Johnson had not played since the McGladrey event, which ended in mid-October. Hard to say where the needles on players' give-a-damn meters were pointing.
Elling: John, you're the only guy in this conversation who has co-written books on swing execution. Weigh in for me here. Armed with the slow-mo replay on my DVR on Sunday, I continue to cringe at the mechanics of Woods' new swing move. He is dipping his head six inches on wedge shots. His right elbow is Crazy-Glued to his right side. His exaggerated pre-shot practice swing looks like a slash-slice swipe. The club is frequently laid off at the top. At impact, his nose is pointed almost straight down at the ball. The posture looks totally different, more stooped over the ball. It's certainly not the graceful, artistic, athletic move he used for most of his career. But I guess aesthetics don't mean a lot. Ask Rickie Fowler or Jim Furyk.
Huggan: Don't read too much into the practice-swing move. That gives him a feeling that is the opposite of his fault. But you are right about the head-dipping thing. I know that used to drive Hank Haney mad and will have to go. It's hard to believe T.W. doesn't chunk more wedge shots -- I am an authority on that subject -- with that going on. And the laid-off thing is an illusion cause by the fact that he is not making a full backswing. If he were to do so, the club would be on line. Apart from that ...
Elling: Well, safe to say that he and Adam Scott no longer look like Dolly the cloned sheep and her genetically engineered offspring.
Elling: Along with some other viewers, I was somewhat taken aback by NBC's continual pounding home of the point that Woods hadn't won in 724 days -- replete with graphics and the salient data of his past droughts -- which extends nearly three times longer than any other slump in his career. Well, let's be honest here and screw the ratings -- he still hasn't won as far as his resume is concerned. It was an exhibition on financial steroids. But it has to mean something between the ears, which is just as valuable to him personally. In theory.
Huggan: Far more interesting was his ability to make the shots and hole the putts on the last two holes. That speaks well of his competitive fire, something else you were questioning. I also saw some sensible quotes from Tiger's caddie -- when was the last time we said that? -- regarding what this means. "Tiger knows this isn't the Masters," said Joe La Cava, one of the nicest guys out there, by the way.
Huggan: Or is he now "Joey?" Everyone in Tiger's vicinity ends up being referred to in the diminutive. All to make T.W. feel bigger, I suspect.
Elling: Yeah, Johnny, La Cava is a sensible guy. But he'd be a lot more valuable if he helped read a few putts.
Elling: Interestingly, tournament officials said after the event that Chevron was not renewing as title sponsor after four years. Tiger had played only twice in that span, and once, the entire hook of the tournament week was that Woods had withdrawn because of alleged injuries sustained in his car crash. It will be very interesting to see which sponsor steps up and links their corporate reputation to Woods.
Huggan: There must be a nightclub chain out there looking for some on-course action.
Elling: The tournament logo could be a chrome pole. One (more) last Tiger thought: The guy changed his putting grip off and on during the tournament last week. Clearly, he's still looking for a Band-Aid there. To me, that's a bigger issue than any swing technique. When the guy is nearly driving it straighter than he's rolling it, that's not good.
It was almost completely overlooked in the States, where the Tiger Tale ate everything in its wake, but world No. 2 Rory McIlroy summoned some last-hole theatrics of his own in Hong Kong on Sunday to set up a potentially brilliant ending on the European Tour. Can No. 1 Luke Donald hold him off?
Elling: Holy mother of cash conversions. That's about $7. Or what Tiger tips on a $93 meal. For you handicappers, punters and bean counters, in two starts at the Dubai finale, Donald has finished T9 and T37, while McIlroy has finished fifth and third and never posted a score worse than 72. In other words, if the pair holds to past form, McIlroy has a definite shot. Consider me interested. Very.
Huggan: Indeed, but to be more realistic, the chances of Luke finishing as low as ninth are a lot less than Rory winning. The young lad did well last week to win in Hong Kong, but he is running on fumes at the moment. Still, the presence of his well-known girlfriend here in Dubai will surely perk him up.
Elling: At that age, I thought girlfriends generally wore a guy out? Here's hoping McIlroy isn't out of gas and can make it interesting. He's been chasing cash for over a month now, with a series of exhibitions in China and the unofficial Shanghai Masters event. The tally is five countries in as many weeks or thereabouts. Even at 22, that's got to take a cumulative toll. His new management is going to need to budget his time more productively moving ahead, especially now that he's taking up his PGA Tour card again in 2012 and will need to make 15 starts in the States.
Huggan: No one will be taking her on at tennis, that's for sure.
Elling: Personally, I hope Donald achieves the goal. The money lists have never been topped by a double member, and in a year when other two-tour members have mostly struggled in the States -- prominent players like Stenson, Garcia, McDowell and Casey -- Donald has been relentlessly consistent. He is clearly the global player of the year.
Huggan: As an aside, Rory did the European Tour two favors last week. First he announced he will play in the ailing Irish Open next year. The event so far has neither a sponsor nor a venue. Hopefully, his guaranteed presence will help in the selling of one and the finding of the other. Then he won in Hong Kong, which ensured some interest in the money-list thing this week. Donald, lest we forget -- and ignore the fact that Tiger has already done it multiple times -- has already cleaned up on your side of the pond. So he's going for an elusive double.
Elling: That's a huge win for the Irish tournament no matter how well he plays. As for Sunday, you had to love the way Wee Mac recorded his second official win of the year. Talk about style points. McIlroy found a greenside bunker on the last hole, and needing to get up and down to save a one-shot win, he holed the shot to finish off a bogey-free 65. King Kong of Hong Kong. Somewhat remarkably, it marked his fourth victory on the European or PGA tours, and this represents his first two-win season.
Elling: The Tiger deal requires an asterisk. He never played the required number of EuroTour events to become a member, though he cleaned up enough at majors and WGC events to lead the tour in earnings because the cash counts on both tours. Pity he could not be bothered to add a few overseas events to reach the membership minimum. Must be a hellish existence, working 18 weeks a year.
Huggan: Yes, perhaps the only mild criticism one could level at Rory is that he doesn't win as often as his undoubted talent suggests he should. Well, that and his short putting is sometimes fallible. So the more he does it the better. Plus, this was the first time he has won by really grinding it out against a tightly packed pack over more than a few holes. All of the above will do wonders for his confidence. Roll on the first time he goes at it head-to-head with Tiger.
Elling: Yep, the battle with Luke will be interesting as Tiger's match with Johnson on Sunday. Great putter and finesse player (Donald) paired against a modern, gun-slinging power player (McIlroy).
Huggan: To put it in perspective -- and show how great Tiger used to be -- Casey topped the European Tour's money list a few years ago by winning half as much in twice as many events as Tiger. Take that for dominance.
Huggan: Zach Johnson displays finesse? With that grip? Take another look!
Elling: He is a killer from 100-125 yards. Unlike, say, you.
Huggan: I'm a killer from 120 yards. Sickening knee-high fizzers are dangerous.
Elling: This is the second time in six weeks that Donald has faced a two-man situation in the finale, with the money title and honors on the line. Heading to the U.S finale at Disney, he was the one sitting in second place in earnings, and birdied the first six holes on the back nine Sunday to win the tournament and cash race in clutch fashion. Now he gets to play defense.
Elling: As to the notion of gas, a nice metaphor considering your Middle East locale, Donald had four rounds in the 70s to finish a so-so seventh in a 12-man field at the Nedbank Challenge. Hey, it's another top 10! Donald has been idle for a few weeks, but there's been some emotions at play on the familial front in that stretch. His second daughter was born and his father died in England. Hope both of these guys can muster a good showing and give the 2011 a fitting sendoff.
Huggan: Yes, I suspect that last week in S.A. was more of a warmup than anything for Luke. As you pointed out, he's had a lot of emotional stuff going on over the last few weeks. By the way, Donald and McIlroy will be paired together for the first round Thursday. Fascinating dynamic as you say.
Elling: The season really and truly ends Sunday, right? Right?
Huggan: It does not. Next week, Luke and Ian Poulter and a few others tempted by IMG money will be in Melbourne for the Aussie Masters. Then it's over.
Elling: Oops, I stand corrected. Almost forgot Greg Chalmers' bid for the Aussie Triple Crown. One last week of full-field plunder Down Under.
With his victory, Woods jumped 31 spots in the world ranking to No. 21. No sooner did Woods win Sunday night than did the calls for a ranking overhaul begin. What sayeth you blokes?
Huggan: Not sure I heard so much squealing when Tiger and Phil were up there at the top. Just saying, again.
Elling: Except now they are squealing because Tiger jumped too far, too fast. Again, this isn't even an official event. Unofficial money. Doesn't count. The cash enough is enough to get players to show. The points party is unnecessary. In a backward way, while it might legitimize the tournament -- it certainly does in Woods' eyes -- it diminishes the value of the OWGR. The golf Twitterazzi, including tour players like Steve Elkington and Arron Oberholser, were shooting holes in the OWGR almost as soon at the tournament was over.
Huggan: I do agree that it is nonsense for events like Sun City and Chevron to have any ranking points. Any field less than 50 should be ineligible.
Elling: Anything that pays unofficial money too. Oh, and Tim Finchem just sat bolt upright at your last sentence. The vaunted Tour Championship has 30 players.
Huggan: Yes, official events only, please.
Elling: Stay with me here. ... In a perverse way, Woods is the breathing embodiment of why the decision to award mega-points to a short-field event is all wrong. My view is this: There are dozens of players out there capable of winning on tour in a given week and the number has grown by a legion over the past couple of years. Woods was the lowest ranked guy in his own field at No. 52 when he won, which underscores the thesis -- the more players, the harder it is to win. In this era, given the depth, it's harder to win against so-so full fields than so-called elite short fields. I mean, Zach Johnson had not played in six weeks and almost won.
Huggan: What would make a difference to the world rankings -- especially from a U.S. point of view -- is if the PGA Tour made the effort to vary the questions asked of their players. Every week the rough is the same height, the greens are the same speed, the fairway same the same width. The sand is the same depth and the level of boredom is the same too. If things changed now and then the tour would produce better players, ones better able to cope with the demands of major championship play for example. And I don't count the PGA as a major since it's nothing more than a jumped-up tour event.
Elling: Let 'em award OWGR points if they have to. But dial down the formula for events with short fields. No way any guy should jump 31 spots for beating 17 guys. Period.
Huggan: You are not wrong. Which is unusual.
Elling: Your bashing of the PGA amuses me. It had the strongest field of the year in terms of the most top-200 players entered. Play it in a parking lot, and it still means something.
Huggan: All I'm saying is that it would be nice to see them taken out of their comfort zone once in a while.
Elling: Like at Royal Melbourne, you mean? No issue with that in any regard.
Huggan: Rickie Fowler should get out of there, for example. He's much more suited to playing in Europe.
Elling: No doubt. He dresses like a demented Swede.
Huggan: Royal Melbourne was a perfect example. Look how interesting it was to see really god players asked really interesting -- and different -- questions.
Elling: Hey, before we surrender you to the streets of Dubai, what's the state of affairs thereabouts these days? Is the city showing signs of coming out of its horrid economic slump? Will there be a Dubai World Challenge going forward? Or will it disappear like Tiger's now-defunct Dubai golf course?
Huggan: I had a wander round the mall earlier, across road from the hotel. Sparkling array of shops, but hardly anyone is buying. I hear the golf is still unfinished too. I am eagerly waiting to see if the shovel that has sat by the front gate the last two years is still there. I'm betting it is.
Elling: Incredible. All those construction cranes dotting the Dubai skyline, and none of them are being used.
Huggan: Not many. They are a bit like imagination and flair on the PGA Tour: unnecessary extras. I have a shirt from Tiger's now-dead course. I wear it when I want to annoy him. I got a nice glare during the Aussie Open when I had it on.
Elling: So, you wear it all the time? It's a collector's item. You should drive out into the dunes to see if the desert has swallowed it whole. Speaking of gulping, did you hear that Tiger sent champagne to the media center after his win (or somebody in his camp did) on Sunday night. Probably no coincidence that neither of us were there. Not that some of the scribes weren't giddy enough already.