Tiger Woods watched his 25-foot putt race down the slope and bend toward the cup, then he skipped backward and punched the desert air in celebration when it disappeared into the cup for a final birdie.
So ended his spectacular charge on Sunday to win the Dubai Desert Classic over Ernie Els, a familiar victim. Woods birdied his last two holes, and five of his last seven, for a seven-under 65 to start his season with two victories that looked nothing alike.
One week was an eight-shot victory at the Buick Invitational. The next week was his largest comeback in eight years when Woods rallied from a four-shot deficit with an array of impressive shots that make him look tougher to beat than he already is.
”I’m just happy to get a win out of this,” Woods said.
It is the third time Woods has started his season 2-0, another sign that he could be headed for a big year. He now has won his past four official tournaments, and six of his past seven dating to the Bridgestone Invitational in early August. Woods also won his unofficial Target World Challenge by seven shots in December.
”It’s the ideal start, isn’t it?” Woods said. ”You play to win. So far, I’ve done that this year.”
Woods finished at 14-under 274 for a one-shot victory over Martin Kaymer of Germany. Woods had already posted his score when Kaymer, who won two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, closed birdie-birdie-eagle for a 66.
But the real victim was Els. He started the final round with a one-shot lead over Henrik Stenson and was four shots clear of Woods. The 38-year-old South African missed par putts inside five feet on the 11th and 12th holes to lose the lead, but he still had a chance to force a play-off with a birdie on the par-five 18th. Instead, Els hit five-wood that came up well short and ended up in the water.
He finished with a bogey for a 71 and tied for third with Louis Oosthuizen.
It was a devastating blow to Els, who stared at the ground as he walked toward the 18th green. He is in the middle of a three-year plan to overtake Woods at number one in the world, and said at the start of his season that he needed to start winning.
This was the perfect occasion, and he let it slip away in familiar fashion. Two years ago at Dubai, Woods birdied the last two holes to force a play-off against Els, then beat him when the South African hit his second shot into the water on number 18.
This one never had a chance.
”The second shot on the 18, it was right where I had it, but I could see the gust got it in the air and it didn’t have much of a chance in the end there,” Els said.
Reaching number one now looks like a lost cause.
Woods has more than double the points over second-ranked Phil Mickelson, and when asked about the gap over Mickelson, Woods playfully said: ”I thought Ian Poulter was number two?”
That was a reference to Poulter being quoted in a British magazine that he was the only one capable of challenging the world’s number-one player. Poulter closed with a 76 on Sunday and tied for 39th.
It was the largest comeback for Woods since he made up a five-shot deficit at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 2000, a final round that included holing out from the 15th fairway.
This was almost as impressive. He lost momentum with bogeys on the sixth and ninth holes, but he poured it on along the back nine with six birdies to win Dubai for the second time.
”All of sudden I was in the mix, out of the mix,” Woods said.
It started with a chip-in for birdie from a thick lie in the rough. Then came a tough flop shot from a tight lie, a bunker between Woods and the hole, that he caught perfectly to about five feet for birdie on the 13th.
”I thought I had to shoot 30 to get into a play-off,” said Woods, who shot 31 on the back nine. ”It just happened to be good enough.”
Woods hit a perfect drive on the 359-yard 17th to just left of the green, leaving him a good angle for a chip that he hit to eight feet for birdie. Then came the 18th, when Woods thought his five-wood for a second shot was perfect. It went long, just short of the bunker, leaving him an awkward chip down the slope, with water on the other side.
”I could easily chip the ball in the water,” Woods said. ”You have to make your mistake short and if I leave it too short, just chip up and try to make a par and [I’m] probably not going to win the tournament, but see what happens.”
He came up short, but holed the 25-foot birdie putt that turned out to be good enough.
Woods also won his first two events of the season in 2000 and 2006. In both those years, Els was among his early victims.
He now has won 72 times worldwide in his career, 62 of those on the PGA Tour. A week ago at Torrey Pines, Woods won by at least eight shots for the ninth time in his career. This was much tighter, and Woods made no secret which one he prefers.
”I like [winning] by seven or eight a lot,” he said. ”It’s a lot less stressful.”
Woods has until Friday to decide whether he will play the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, although he likely will not return until the Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, which begins on February 20. — Sapa-AP