You can’t say that the end of Tiger Woods’ Northwest Mutual World Challenge wasn’t exciting. Tiger had a four-shot lead and looked to be a lock with eight holes to go. And then it slowly dwindled away for one reason or another until he was tied with his playing companion, Zach Johnson, heading to the 18th tee.
Johnson’s birdie on 17 gave him the honor and he piped his driver down into the landing area bowl and into the middle of the fairway. Woods pulled his 3-wood left and it hung on the hillside through the fairway with trees blocking a straight path to the hole. He was away.
When it became apparent that he was actually going to try to hit a sweeping hook, out of the rough, around the trees, from a severe sidehill lie, with the ball well below his feet, with a 5-iron…it caused some confusion. What exactly was he attempting to do here? Didn’t he know this was a near impossible shot?
Uh, no. We just lacked his sense of what shots are possible because of his extraordinary talent. Suddenly it also became possible that this shot just might be the next one added to his compendium of otherworldly golf shots no one would ever believe unless they actually saw them.
As he came through impact, he was squatting so low to stay down through the ball that one wondered if his old knee injury would get roughed up; he was almost doing a split.
Well, he made great contact and did, indeed, get the ball moving right-to-left in a big high arc, but just not enough. It hit the bank short right of the green and plopped into the deep greenside bunker.
Zach Johnson must have been licking his chops. He knew that Tiger was one of the best bunker players on Tour, but it was unlikely that he would hole it out for birdie. Johnson had been stuffing his irons all day long and particularly on 16 and 17; this was just another opportunity to keep his groove going.
He shanked it. Stone cold shanked into the fronting pond. It was so shocking, it made you flinch. How could that happen? He said later that he just didn’t finish his backswing. Under that kind of pressure with that sort of accomplishment on the line, anyone could get short and quick.
Shouldn’t have been in that position, but I’ll learn from it. I didn’t complete my back swing on my second shot, and as a result, miss‑hit it and everything. It was just bad. Just bad. (Laughs). I mean that was the worst shot I hit all day. Wasn’t even close to being — there was no question. It was probably the worst I hit all week.
So he chose to drop in the drop area with 58 yards to the hole…and sank his fourth shot for par. The ball landed just over the front of the green, one-hopped a couple of inches above the hole…and then rolled back in. It was stunning. To Tiger too, one could imagine. Even though you’re supposed to expect your opponent to make the shot in a match play situation like that, nobody would expect anybody to make it from there.
So Woods, the ever consummate Tour pro, hit a beautiful, soft little bunker shot from six feet below the green’s surface that stopped a couple feet away for his tap-in par. To no one’s surprise. Back to the 18th tee to begin the playoff.
Both players hit the fairway, this time with Woods away because he just hit 3-wood again. And with the ball safely in the middle of the fairway, Woods did the improbable — and in his mind the unforgivable — hitting the ball back into almost the exact same place in the bunker. What was going on?
I was stuck right in between clubs, between 7 and 8. And that downhill lie, I missed a soft 7 and just let it go on the wind. And I just got one of those half numbers. I was right dead in between clubs and tried to hit a little smoothy in there and just let it go in the wind a little bit.
Johnson prepared for the hardest shot in golf — the one after a shank — and hit a decent one pin high left and maybe 35 feet away.
Woods was away and hit almost a carbon copy of his first bunker shot, but about 3½ feet away this time.
Johnson rolled his putt to within thoughtless tap-in range and did.
Woods went through the motions on his, made his routine, flowing stroke…and the ball hit the left edge so close to going in that it made a quick, darting, 90-degree turn out of the hole and shocked, truly shocked, everyone.
You know, most of the week, except for Friday, I was struggling blocking putts, and today was a perfect example of that. I blocked a lot of putts today and just hadn’t — had a tough time finding my release point. I just could not find my release point, no matter what I tried to do to adjust and just wasn’t there.
So the last hole, you know, being left‑to‑right, I just didn’t want to block that one, and I didn’t. I over‑released it.
It was the kiss of death. The putting stroke is called a stroke because it generally unfolds quite slowly compared to a full swing. So there is plenty of time to manipulate the putter face rather than just letting it flow to the hole by trusting the stroke. Tiger Woods is human after all.
And Zach Johnson showed tremendous discipline in getting right back up there after that shank as if it had never happened. In the moment, it appeared to be a nervous pull, but it wasn’t:
I was five yards closer, I think the second time around, yes, five yards, because I hit a 9‑iron instead of an 8‑iron. So I mean I hit the shot I was trying to hit in regulation. You know, it didn’t cut much, which is fine, but I was trying to just stay left of the hole, and you know, nothing more than that. I’m not going to go at the pin. If I do, it would be on accident. You know, but there was no mental change. Even if he would have stuffed it, I’m still trying to go left of the hole and if it cuts, it cuts.
Given the very high quality of the field, the victory boosted Johnson to No. 10 in the world golf rankings. And given how he did it, it was a fitting outcome.