SYDNEY (AP) — From about 250 yards away, thousands of fans perched on the dunes behind the 17th hole could make out the guy in a red shirt posing over his shot, then the ball appearing on the green and racing down a ridge to 12 feet behind the pin.
This is what they wanted to see Sunday at the Australian Open.
Tiger Woods, gone for the most of the year and rarely on the leaderboard even when he was playing, faced an eagle putt late in the final round at The Lakes that would have given him a share of the lead.
Moments later, three groups behind him, Greg Chalmers hit 7-iron to 18 inches on the par-3 15th for a birdie that put him back in control, and ultimately led to a one-shot victory over John Senden. With a par save from the bunker on the final hole, Chalmers closed with a 3-under 69 to put his name on the Stonehaven Cup trophy for the second time.
Woods now has gone two full years since his last win at the Australian Masters, yet he headed south to Royal Melbourne for the Presidents Cup with reason for optimism.
Two bad tee shots slowed his charge, one of them a questionable decision. Yet there also was a birdie on the second-toughest hole to keep alive his hopes, a chip-in for eagle on the 14th hole when nothing less would suffice, and three solid rounds that gave him his first real chance of winning in nearly a year.
Woods closed with a 5-under 67 and finished alone in third. It was his highest finish since a playoff loss last December to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge, and his best result against a full field since his last win in Melbourne.
“I felt great,” Woods said. “It’s nice to finally be healthy again.”
He has talked about his health a lot the last year, though it cannot be written off as an excuse. Woods missed most of the summer while letting injuries to his left leg fully heal, which made him ineligible to play once he was feeling strong. This was only his second tournament in the last three months, and he showed plenty of progress.
For the first time since the Masters, when he was tied for the lead at the turn on Sunday until he stalled and tied for fourth, his name on the leaderboard meant something.
“It’s been since Augusta, I had the lead at Augusta on Sunday, that’s the last time I’ve been in that spot,” Woods said. “It’s been a long time. Unfortunately I haven’t played a lot of tournaments in between. But it was great to be out there. I had a chance. Unfortunately, I didn’t post the number I wanted to post.”
Chalmers kept his wits about him.
He could hear the massive cheer when Woods chipped in for eagle from about 15 feet off the green, loud enough to rattle him. But he realized that he still had the short 13th — the one Woods bungled — and two par 5s.
“I was aware of what Tiger was doing, but I was also aware that I had some birdie holes coming up,” Chalmers said. “I thought the advantage was with someone still out on the golf course.”
Chalmers was counting on a birdie at the 14th, but he missed his putt. Instead, he picked up a birdie on the 15th to restore his two-shot lead, and settled for par on the 17th because he knew his only blunder would be to go for the green and risk hitting into the water.
The final challenge came from Senden, the 54-hole leader, who hit a marvelous pitch across the 17th for birdie that brought him to within one shot. Needing a birdie to force a playoff, Senden’s putt from some 50 feet had a chance until it stayed just above the hole. Senden closed with a 72 and was the runner-up.
Woods had said he needed a solid front nine to give himself a chance on the back nine, which has three par 5s and a pair of short par 4s. That’s just what he did, playing the front nine with three birdies and no bogeys.
Two shots on the back nine hurt his chances.
He made bogey on the par-5 11th hole for the second straight day, again hitting it well left off the tee. The ball landed in a patch of sand where spectators had walked all week, and his ball settled in a deep heel print. He blasted out sideways, couldn’t reach the green and missed a 7-foot par putt.
Two holes later, Woods again was confused by which club to hit. He went with the driver again, and this time paid for it. It was a high slice, barely cleared the pond and plugged into the muddy bank about a foot short of the red hazard line — on the other side, he could have taken a free drop from an embedded lie.
Instead, Woods blasted a shot well behind the ball to pop it forward, only it hit a tree and came close to going into another pond. His next shot from 60 yards didn’t reach the green, and he got up-and-down for a bogey.
“I shouldn’t have gone for it in hindsight because I just should have laid up with a 5-iron and a wedge in there,” Woods said. “But I figured I needed to shoot somewhere around 31 on that back nine to give myself a chance. I thought 13 or 14 (under) was going to be the number. I had to go get it. Unfortunately, I made a mistake there.”
His mistake for the week came on Saturday.
Woods rarely plays four good rounds even in the best of times. He won so often because he was able to turn his one shaky round from a 74 into a 70 to stay in the mix. On Saturday, he took 34 putts and shot 75 to fall six shots behind.
Woods, of course, wasn’t the only player who wishes he could have shots back.
Senden bogeyed his first three holes Sunday, as Woods did in the third round, and lost by one shot. Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy had a 74 in the second round, then closed with a 65 on Sunday. Jason Day, one shot behind going into the last day, hit his opening tee shot into the water and made bogey at No. 11.
No one commands more attention than Woods, however, and those watching had a distinct feeling that he is not far off.
“Two holes on the back nine today, and I putted awful yesterday,” Woods said. “Or I would have been right there.”
His third-place finish should be enough to at least get him back into the top 50 in the world. And any questions about why Fred Couples picked him for the Presidents Cup team should abate.
Woods had the best score among eight Americans on the team who played in the Australian Open.