I was looking forward to seeing if I could pinch the Race to Dubai from under Martin Kaymer’s nose, but couldn’t quite make it happen, leaving him to add yet more silverware to his 2010 trophy cabinet. There was, however, one more pleasant surprise in store when, instead of heading home for a spot of R&R after Dubai, I jetted to California for Tiger’s Chevron World Challenge… and ended up beating the host himself head-to-head over the weekend.
I got off to a great start on Thursday, stayed near the top on Friday, then found myself in Tiger’s company all weekend. I haven’t played that much with him, but did play with him once in 2002 very early in my career when I was intimidated by most things, and obviously very intimidated by him. Deer in the headlights comes to mind! More recently I played with him in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, and that was good acclimatisation. I think that’s the word you’ve got to use – you’ve got to acclimatise to it, because there’s a circus that goes with playing with Tiger. There’s an aura around him, a buzz, the fans and so on, and it does take a bit of getting used to.
I haven’t played with him enough to really know what’s been lacking in his game this year, but his short game and putting certainly looked impressive from my front-row seat on Saturday. He kept his ball under control too and barely missed a fairway. Even though I matched his 68, it still left me four behind going into Sunday and some kind journalists were quick to point out that Tiger was 28 for 28 when heading into the last round with a three-shot lead or more. But I was playing well so certainly hadn’t resigned myself to becoming victim number 29. To end up being the guy to break that particular Tiger streak is pretty special.
I think the two of us were far enough ahead to make it more of a matchplay scenario, especially when I got off to a good start on Sunday and Tiger made a couple of early bogeys. His putter looked a little cold on the front nine, so I did sense an opportunity. But I was still pretty nervous on the back nine because when you’re playing with Tiger on a Sunday afternoon, you expect great things from him.
But if you get out of position on the greens at Thousand Oaks they can beat you up, which is what happened to Tiger on the par-5 13th where I took the lead. I was then on the receiving end on 17 when I overshot the green, had to take a penalty drop and ended up making a gritty bogey. That meant we headed down 18 tied. I hit an okay 9-iron to about 20ft and when Tiger knocked it virtually stiff it looked like he’d finally have his first 2010 win. For me to then hole my left-to-righter to force extra holes was amazing; to do the exact same thing to win the play-off was incredible. Playing with Tiger over the weekend and getting the job done is yet another 2010 highlight for me, and I believe it will serve as a really good workout for next time – and I do expect to be involved in more Sunday afternoon tussles with him. I’ll have gained a lot of valuable experience from this to draw on next time.
But we do need Tiger back winning tournaments, so it was great to see him playing well. He didn’t do much wrong on Sunday, and I think he’ll be back winning very soon. He used to seem invincible, though the events of the past 12 months made him more human. But there’s something very special about Tiger’s golf game, and I expect the mystique to return as his clubs start doing the talking again. I had a bit of a joke with him on 18 on Saturday, saying there were a few more people there this year and I couldn’t really understand why. He told me to quit the chat because he’d done me a huge favour last year having to drop out. If I ever need an invite again after doing that to him this year, who knows, maybe I won’t get one!