Up To The Challenge

Northwestern Mutual Challenge LogoThe Northwestern Mutual World Challenge is Tiger’s annual invitational event, he has won it five times.  But twice in the last four years it has come down to a playoff with Tiger and twice he has come up on the short side without the answer.

In 2010 Graeme McDowell took Tiger in a heart stopping playoff that seemed to galvanize McDowell’s ascendency in the game.  This time it was Zach Johnson “ex-Zach-ting” some revenge for Tiger’s come from behind victory here in 2011 where Tiger overtook Zach down the stretch.

This year it was kind of a two-horse race right out of the gate as Zach shot a smooth 67 with tough pin positions to take the lead on day one.  Tiger scorched the course and the field with a 10-under 62 on day two to grab the lead by himself.  It seemed a fait accompli that Tiger would etch his name on this feline trophy for the sixth time, the last time the event would be played in this part of southern California where he developed his game as a young cub.

Saturday was a push with them both shooting par 72 so they began the final day playing in the final group, Tiger, the world’s greatest front runner, holding a two-shot lead.

You had to like Tiger’s chances since Sherwood Country Club has five par fives which makes par for the big hitter about 67.  Zach is a man who has yet to see a par five that he considers reachable but his wedge game is so superb that he was still 9-under on the five pars over the first three rounds.  Don’t forget this was the man who won a green jacket with this same lay-up-on-the-par-five strategy at Augusta in 2007.

Front nine Tiger made two birdies to up his lead to three but shooting even par on the inward half on Sunday is very un-Tigerlike and this would provide a very small opening which Johnson would have to manage to squeeze through.  A bogey on ten put Zach four back but back-to-back birdies on eleven and twelve put him within shouting distance again.  Game on.

What happened down the stretch, the last three holes, just proves the old adage that truth is way stranger than fiction.  On sixteen and seventeen Zach nearly holed his approach shots for eagle,  landing them past the hole before spinning back for a drive-by look.  Both left him short uphill putts for birdie.  The second birdie pulled him to even with Eldrick going into the eighteenth.

After Tiger pulled his tee ball to a hanging lie on the left side of the fairway and skidded his approach right of the green into the front bunker it looked like advantage Zach.  From the center of the fairway with a stock 8-iron in hand the ultimate grinder looked like an eighteen handicapper doing a hosel job into the hazard short right of the green.  This was the ultimate you-got-to-be-kidding moment for a guy with his name etched on the side of his bag.

Now the improbable….or maybe the unthinkable….Zach proved that the third time is the charm as he skipped his sand wedge from the drop zone just past the hole before taking the back door into the hole for a most unlikely par.  The incredulous cheshire grin on Tiger’s face said it all.

Tiger upped and down to send it to extra holes but that was just delaying the inevitable….the golf gods had intervened again and Tiger would be denied a swan song victory in this year’s Challenge.

The playoff lasted one hole with Tiger returning his approach shot within a foot of the previous one in the front left bunker on eighteen.  This time he failed to escape with a short side save and Zach’s 25-foot two-putt on the same line that Graeme had dashed Tiger’s hopes in 2010 was enough to secure the victory.

Next year Tiger’s Challenge moves to another one of his home venue’s Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Orlando.  They will be hard pressed to match the kind of heart stopping drama that this southern California venue has provided almost every year.

December, 2013

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