Delighted Tiger back in winner's enclosure

Woods sees off spirited Johnson challenge to triumph for the first time in two years

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The Independent Online

After 749 days and one very public scandal, Tiger Woods finally won a golf tournament again last night. The 35-year-old put more than two years of failure behind him with a birdie-birdie finish at the Chevron World Challenge in California which reminded everyone of the phenomenon who wore red before.

This was the old Tiger, refusing to surrender down the home stretch as Zach Johnson dared to threaten to upset the party. A 15-footer on the 17th and a brilliant approach to six feet on the last overhauled Johnson's one-shot lead. And the fist-pump, together with that winning colour of the polo shirt, transported golf, however fleetingly, back to the glory days which preceded the mistresses scandal.

For Woods it was a hugely significant win as, besides the £770,000 first prize, he jumps 31 places to 21st in the world rankings. Yet this was more about the emotion rather than the numbers, particularly as the breakthrough came at the tournament his charitable foundation promotes. The cheers rang out at Sherwood Country Club near Los Angeles and although the cynics will point out this was only a 17-man field it was difficult not to sense that for Woods this was a major turning point.

"It feels great," said Woods. "It was a lot of fun coming down the stretch. Zach put a lot of pressure on me. He turned the tide [on 16th], next thing I am one down playing the last couple of holes. Then I made two good putts. It feels awesome."

As Woods implied, it did not lack for drama. With Paul Casey coming through the pack to finish an impressive but remote third, it became a two-horse race. Johnson, the 2008 Masters champion, had stolen the lead off Woods at the end of Saturday's third round when holing his approach shot on the 18th with for an eagle. That set up an intriguing head-to-head.

By the 11th, Woods had opened up a two-shot lead on his Ryder Cup team-mate; yet this would be no cruise to victory. By the 17th tee, Johnson had made up three shots on Woods to regain the advantage. His 12-footer for birdie on the 16th seemed destined to make Woods wait for his 83rd career victory. Was his barren run about to extend to 27 tournaments all the way back to the 2009 Australian Masters, a few weeks before his world fell apart? Was the 14-time major champion really about to go two full complete calendar years without a win?

Woods was not going to let that happen. The swing changes he has made with coach Sean Foley have finally bedded in, meaning that he felt able to play through instinct and allow his legendary competitive mettle assume the controls. Two birdies and two extremely clutch putts later, Woods was back in the winner's enclosure.

"I've been in contention twice this year which is not very often, but I was able to pull it off this time," said Woods. "It felt normal, very comfortable. Was I nervous? Absolutely but it was a comfortable feeling. I know it's been a while but for some reason it feels like it hasn't. Coming down the stretch, I felt so comfortable. I feel pretty good going into next year."

Golf will be delighted to hear so. Even Woods's biggest detractors could deny this was a massive boost for the game. The close season, all two of three weeks of it, cannot come and go soon enough before Woods reappears in Abu Dhabi next month. What will 2012 bring for the fallen icon who still needs five majors to pass Jack Nicklaus's record? After this victory do not expect the bulk of the predictions to be understated.