Woods wins by seven, still sees 'room for improvement'
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- There was never any doubt about the outcome. Even in a friendly, sun-splashed, holiday money grab, Tiger Woods still steps on necks and does not allow his opponents any mercy.Happy Holidays! "Tiger has a way of keeping the pedal down," said Jim Furyk, the third-ranked player in the world, who was paired with Woods for the final two days of the Target World Challenge and saw for himself what he already knew. The guy can be simply phenomenal, whether it is down the stretch at a major championship, at a regular PGA Tour event or at his annual 16-player tournament that benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods won by seven over Masters champion Zach Johnson, capturing the event for the second straight year and the fourth time overall, on Sunday at Sherwood Country Club, putting on an impressive four-day display that seemed utterly routine. That he shot a tournament record 22-under-par 266 and did so after a 10-week break from competitive golf -- he returned to the driving range just two weeks ago -- says something about the great shape his game is in after another player of the year season in which he won four of his last five official starts. So what does it mean? Was this simply one good week for Woods, who turns 32 on Dec. 30? Or does it portend even more greatness in the 2008 season for a man who might very well be just entering the prime of his career? "It doesn't help us, does it?" said Colin Montgomerie, who played the final three rounds in 14-under after an opening-round 80. "Take a bloody year off. That would help us, never mind 10 weeks." Monty spoke with an air of reverence and admiration. A few days earlier, before Woods showed he had hardly lost his touch since putting away his clubs after the Presidents Cup, it was Montgomerie who said he wouldn't be surprised to see Woods make a run at the Grand Slam.
"It's nice to feel that we have potentially the best sportsman in the world playing golf for the first time ever," he said. "It's super to have that right now."For what it's worth, each time Woods has won his year-ending get-together -- donating his earnings of $1.35 million to the Tiger Woods Foundation -- he has gone on to win a major championship the next season. And this was no slouch field he was going up against. Furyk was one of seven major champions in the field, along with Johnson, Mark Calcavecchia, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, Fred Couples and, of course, Woods himself. The 2003 U.S. Open champ managed to make a game of it, pulling within two shots at the turn after playing the front nine in 4-under-par. He had a great chance to make it really interesting when he hit his approach to 6 feet at the par-4 10th. Woods had a 15-footer, and Furyk was poised to narrow the margin to one. So what happened? Woods made his putt, and Furyk missed. And when Furyk then missed the short par putt -- three-putting from 6 feet -- the lead was back to four shots. "I wasn't really comfortable with my game, and Jimmy was putting a ton of heat on me on the front nine," Woods said. "And then the whole thing changed at the 10th hole." The only drama left concerned whether anybody would rip Rory Sabbatini for pulling out of the tournament. Sabbatini, who made headlines earlier this year when he said Woods was "more beatable than ever," made it into the field by virtue of his standing in the Official World Golf Ranking. But after shooting 81-76 in the second and third rounds, Sabbatini cleared out his locker on Saturday, then called tournament officials Sunday morning to say he was withdrawing for "personal reasons." Not knowing exactly what the problem was, several of the others in the field didn't think too highly of the move, given that this is a limited-field event and Sabbatini was getting $170,000 -- last-place money -- just for showing up. (His agent said he had shin splints.) "The bottom line is, it's not the end of the world," Couples said. "It's just not right." "Rory is Rory," Calcavecchia said. "I think I could have toughed it out one more round. No big deal. I don't think the fans missed him any." Perhaps not, but Woods was clearly miffed. Even for highly paid golfers, this is absolutely found money, a gift. Sabbatini still gets the paycheck. Maybe a phone call to Woods would have sufficed. Or at least trying to warm up Sunday, shaking a few hands, saying hello. Given the history between Sabbatini and Woods, it simply looked bad. "I don't understand. I've had conflicting reports," Woods said. "I've heard he had shin splints. I heard he pulled out for personal reasons. He packed his locker up at 3 o'clock yesterday and, I think, headed to Hawaii. A lot of different things going on, and I'd like to try and get to the bottom of it when we're done here, and we'll see what happens." If nothing else, it ought to make for some fun the next time they are paired together. And it won't be in Hawaii, where Sabbatini was headed for the holidays and to get ready for the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship in Maui. Woods is skipping the winners-only event for the third straight year, opting to begin his season three weeks later at the Buick Invitational, a tournament he has won the past two years. He won that tournament to start his 2007 season, one that saw him win seven times, including a major, two World Golf events and the first FedEx Cup. Anybody want to wager that we're not in for more of the same in 2008? "I think I still have some things to work on," Woods said. "That's the great thing about this week. Even though I shot what I shot, as you can see out there, I have some room for improvement. Which is nice." And for a guy who just won by seven strokes, it is also pretty scary. Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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