Brian Keogh in Dubai
For a while the leaderboard had the snarled up look of a Dubai traffic jam. But that was before Tiger Woods produced the best back nine of the week to snatch the Dubai Desert Classic by a stroke thanks to a magnificent seven-under par closing round of 65.
Four strokes behind overnight leader Ernie Els starting the day, the pessimists were ruling Woods out of the running when he threw away a fast start by bogeying the sixth and then three-putting the ninth green to fall four strokes behind the South African giant once more.
But Woods is Woods and with Ireland’s Damien McGrane looking on from the best seat in the house, he racked up six birdies in a homeward 31 that proved to be just enough to give him a remarkable seventh victory in eight tournament appearances since August last year.
The world number one finished his round by negotiating a tricky stance on the edge of a greenside bunker at the 18th before draining a slick, 30-foot birdie putt and then unleashing a trademark upper-cut that could easily have been aimed straight at the solar plexus of the hapless Els.
Munching a hamburger and fries in the players lounge after setting a target of 14-under par 274, Woods watched on TV on as Els failed to find the birdies he needed to draw level over the closing holes.
Requiring a birdie four at the 18th to force a play-off, Els’ hopes sank in a watery grave as his 240-yard five-wood approach splashed down in the lake fronting the green and he eventually made a bogey six for a one under par 71 that relegated him to a share of third place with compatriot Louis Oosthuizen (66) on 12 under par.
“I told Stevie (Williams, my caddie) if we shoot 30 in this back nine, we’ll probably be in a play-off,” Woods revealed after winning his second event from as many starts this year and his 82nd overall. “I shot 31 and it just happened to be enough.
“I got right back in the mix of the tournament. I was four back and I birdied three of the first four and next thing you know I bogey two holes and I played myself right out of it.
“And then I had to go out on the back nine and shoot something low to get back in the tournament again and all off a sudden, I looked up and Ernie had made a couple of mistakes. He rectified with back-to-back birdies but those mistakes gave me a chance, if I could somehow produce the 30 I was looking for.”
After winning the Buick Invitational by eight shots last week, Woods was asked whether a one-stroke victory gave him more satisfaction.
“I like seven or eight a lot more. It’s less stressful,” said Woods, who revealed that he struggled to control his ball flight with his back up driver after cracking the face of his favourite weapon in Wednesday’s pro-am.
Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who won the Abu Dhabi Championship two weeks ago, eagled the 18th for a 66 that proved good enough for second place on his own on 13 under par and catapulted him from eighth to third in the Order of Merit.
For Els, it was a another bitterly disappointing joust with Woods when the chips were down.
Two years ago he found water with his approach to the 18th to lose the title to the American. This time he started to wobble as soon as Woods charged on the back nine.
The world number one birdied the par-five 10th to get back to nine under par, chipped in from heavy rough at the 12th for the first of a hat-trick of birdies and then carried the ball 320 yards to the heart of the 17th green to set up birdie number five.
Els had gone to the turn in two under par 33 but faltered by missing a four-foot par putt at the 11th and a five-footer at the difficult 12th, he found himself one stroke adrift and couldn’t get back.
Birdies at the 13th and 14th were only enough for him to keep pace with Woods and after failing to birdie the 17th, the game was up when he found water on the 18th with his approach in an action replay of his loss to Woods here in 2006.
Els blamed a gust of wind for his failure to reach the final green with his 240-yard fairway wood but admitted that those missed par putts on the 11th and 12th “really cost me the tournament in the end.”
Woods was generous to his great rival in victory, having found water with his 235 yard, three-wood approach to the 18th in a third round 73.
“People don't realise how hard that shot is,” Woods said. “If you just upshoot it a touch, that wind will just smoke it and that’s what happened to me yesterday. It is blowing above the grandstands here because there really aren't any flags to indicate it.”