CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A tournament that looks like a major now has a winner whose career is defined by them.
Tiger Woods added the Wachovia Championship to his growing collection of trophies Sunday with a 60-foot eagle putt to take the lead, a double bogey that kept it interesting, and by avoiding the kind of calamity that doomed his challengers down the stretch at Quail Hollow.
Despite the topsy-turvy finish, the outcome was all too familiar.
Backed by a two-shot lead on the toughest hole on the course, Woods played it safe and made par from 8 feet to close with a 3-under 69 for a two-shot victory over Steve Stricker.
It was Woods' third victory this year and his ninth on the PGA Tour in his past 12 starts dating to his missed cut in the U.S. Open. He finished at 13-under 275, the lowest score to win the tournament, and earned $1.134 million for the 57th victory of his career. He also went atop the FedEx Cup standings for the first time this season.
"Over the course of my career, I've won a few tournaments here and there, and it's been nice," Woods said. "This one, considering the field and the golf course and the conditions, ecstatic to have won here."
Stricker had his best chance to win for the first time since 2001, one shot behind with three holes to play. He hit into the trees and the sand on the 16th on his way to double bogey, recovered with a 30-foot birdie on the 17th, then lost all hope when he went for the flag on the 18th and hit into the creek. He shot 69.
Rory Sabbatini, who said he wanted Woods in the final pairing, didn't make a par until the 10th hole and closed with a 74 to tie for third with Phil Mickelson, who closed with a 70 but was never a factor.
The Wachovia Championship is only five years old but already regarded one of the best stops on the PGA Tour with its world-class course and strong field - only the Masters and two World Golf Championships had more top players. Of the five winners in its short history, four of them are major champions.
Woods struggled with his swing, and he kept swing coach Hank Haney with him all week, which is rare. But Woods didn't lose his touch for pivotal moments, especially on the par-5 seventh hole. He narrowly went into the water off the tee, then watched a 60-foot putt roll down the ridge and into the cup for eagle and his lead.
He never trailed again. He followed that with two birdies to close out the front nine in 31.
Then, just like everyone else, he hung on for dear life. Woods blew a three-shot lead with six holes to play when he took double bogey with a three-putt on the 13th, and Stricker made a 5-foot birdie on the 15th ahead of him.
"I thought if I could get to even par, I could have a chance," Stricker said.
That's a tall order at Quail Hollow, which has one of the most daunting, three-hole finishes on the PGA Tour. They are the three toughest holes on the course in descending order - with No. 18 as the hardest - and Stricker paid dearly on the 16th.
Vijay Singh, who briefly held the lead with a short birdie on the seventh, couldn't make up ground and finished with a bogey on the 16th and a triple bogey on the 18th when he twice hit into the water. He shot 74 and fell five places to a tie for seventh.
Sabbatini made a joke Saturday night to XM Radio about his "David and Goliath" final pairing with Woods, saying it was tough to consider the world's No. 1 player as David. He had a one-shot lead to start the final round, but was four behind at the turn.
"He got the job done today and I didn't. I don't have any regrets about that," Sabbatini said about his comment. "I want him every week now."
Woods was in a three-way tie for the lead with Singh and Sabbatini when he chipped to 5 feet above the hole at No. 6 and poured it in. Then came a most peculiar turn of events on the par-5 seventh.
"Ah, it's in the water," caddie Steve Williams said while watching Woods' tee shot from under a tree.
The ball took a hard hop beyond the bunker, but Woods caught a huge break when it stopped 18 inches from going into the stream. He went for the green from 193 yards out and easily made it, but the ball was only a yard away from catching a slope and feeding down toward the hole. Instead, he was faced with a 60-foot putt down the steep ridge.
It seemed to take forever to get there.
Woods barely rapped it, then straightened his back to watch it track toward the hole, guiding it with his hand as it got close. He raised his arms and backed away when it fell, a slight look of surprise, then turned and delivered a fist pump that hadn't been seen in a while.
The eagle put him at 13 under, one shot ahead of Singh, whom Woods had just watched make birdie with a tricky 4-foot putt.
And the world's No. 1 player took off from there.
With the gallery still buzzing, he pitched a sand wedge to 8 feet on the next hole for birdie. And from the rough left of the ninth fairway, his approach barely cleared the bunker and bounced off a knob to 18 feet. That birdie putt dropped on the final turn, sending Woods to a 31 on the outward nine.
It was a remarkable score in difficult conditions, with wind gusting through tree-lined fairways and sunshine making the greens as firm as they'd been the first two rounds.
He had a three-shot lead heading to the 10th tee, and there was little doubt who was going to win.
Woods still found a way to make it interesting. He missed the green to the right on the par-3 13th, and his flop shot was 18 feet beyond the hole, a safe shot. But he three-putted for double bogey, missing from 4 feet as his lead whittled away. He dropped another shot on the 17th, but by then he was on his way to another victory.comments powered by Disqus