In the heat of battle, the last thing you would expect Tiger Woods to do is lose composure and go for broke. But that is what Woods appeared to do as he threw away his chance of winning the Dubai Desert Classic on the 18th hole yesterday as Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn applied some pressure.
Bjorn drew on all of his matchplay experience to deny the World number his first victory of the year with a sterling display of golf for four days in the desert with Woods his playing companion all week. But it would be Woods who crumbled and the Danish Ryder Cup star proved that he had learned from last years US Open lesson from Woods on the Saturday at Pebble Beach.
Woods fired a 71 that day and Bjorn, in contention for his first Major Championship, crumbled to an 82 and lost all of his confidence.
But with a new found belief and lessons learned from the Tiger at Pebble, four rounds of 64-66-68-69 would be enough to see the Dane win his sixth European Tour title at the expense of the best player in golf who, and it must be said, choked on the last hole while the pressure was on him.
Woods led going into the final round and only three other players have managed to pip him to the winning post out of 27 tournaments played where Woods took the lead going into Sunday. But Bjorn donned his own version of a “Sunday Red” shirt to show the Tiger that he meant business right from the start of the final round.
Woods led on 20-under par at the start of the day with Bjorn one shot behind with Padraig Harrington and Welsh pocket dynamo Ian Woosnam searching for his first win in four years on tour. The sell out crowd had a potential classic on the cards with world-class players vying for the title with Tiger head of the pack.
But it would not be Woods’ day as he bogeyed the first hole to tie for the lead with Bjorn and even the Dane found his putter in chilled mode on the front nine and only Dubliner Harrington made any significant move as he reached the turn in 32.
But Woods responded in style with a birdie at the ninth hole to reclaim the lead until Bjorn showed his maturity and new found confidence with a fantastic eagle three at the par five tenth hole to get back in the hunt.
Woosnam showed his weaknesses of not being in contention for a title for so long as he dropped off the pace and Harrington bogeyed the 12th and 15th to set up the duel over the last few holes between Bjorn and Woods.
The last holes were drama-filled with some sterling iron play from both players but neither man could drop the crucial birdie putt until Bjorn pulled off some matchplay dramatics at the 17th.
Both players fired to within ten feet and it would be Woods to putt first. He missed on the right edge and Bjorn seized his chance as he walked after his hole-bound ball as soon as it left the putterface. Match all square at 22-under par each and then the drama began as Bjorn, with the psychological edge called upon his limited matchplay experience and played the bravest shot of the week to apply some pressure to Woods.
The Dane fired his ball tight to the left of the 18th fairway making the green reachable in two shots on the notorious par five finishing hole. And Woods, still reeling from the missed chance on the previous hole went all guns blazing, only to push his tee shot wildly to the right and into deep bushes. Advantage Bjorn.
All Woods could do was hack out to the other side of the fairway and when Bjorn fired his second shot just over the back of the green, Woods had no option but to go directly at the flag.
With a potential “flyer” lie, the World’s best player took dead aim, only to find he did not get the “flyer” and his ball dropped short and into the water. Game, set and match to Bjorn who chipped and two putted for a dramatic victory in the classic of all classics in Dubai.
“It doesn’t get much better than this. I am proud of what I did this week. To go out there and play with the guy for four days and beat him is probably any golfer’s dream,” said Bjorn.
“I think this just goes to show how strong the European Tour is becoming. Lee (Westwood) has beaten him head to head, Darren (Clarke) has beaten him head to head and now I’ve done it. It takes a lot of doing because he is very impressive and he does intimidate you a little bit when you’re out there.”
“When I birdie the 17th I knew if I could hit a good drive on the 18th I could put pressure on him.
“It takes a lot to do that, but I knew if I could go on a tight line and hit it well it was going to put pressure on him because it is not the easiest driving hole. I think it is down to my credit really that I put the pressure on at exactly the right time.”
"This is the best performance of my life by far. I know I can look him in the eye and take him on.” Added Bjorn.
As for Woods, he has yet to win this year and will be looking for a confidence booster before he heads to Augusta National in five weeks time, in a bid to hold all four major titles at one time. But with many pundits claiming that he is in a slump, his friend Bjorn was quick to scotch that rumour.
"Tiger's intimidation is disappearing, but people must not forget that he is still the best player in the game - and the best by far," said Bjorn.
"There's a lot of people talking about Tiger being in a slump, but that's way out of proportion. He's playing some fantastic golf. He just hasn't won yet."
A forlorn Woods added later: “Hats off to Thomas. He played well all week and he deserves the title. I had an opportunity but I just made a couple of mistakes which cost me. Thomas played really solid all day but I wasn’t comfortable with my golf swing and my putting stroke.”