When going away for the two weeks to China and Japan I wasn’t thinking that I would be coming home with a top ten and a win under my belt! My second win of the season came last week in the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan. It was an unexpected one in many ways as it was first time playing the event and also with six holes to go in the tournament I was trailing Tiger by three shots.
It is a great feeling to come over to Japan and win as I have never won here before. As well as that it is always a great feeling to win no matter where it is. Considering that when I left home two weeks ago I was almost wishing that I was staying at home as I hadn’t got any time to enjoy the fact that I had just been crowned the European Order of Merit winner. Looking back on the two weeks I am glad that I went as it was a successful two weeks.
This is a tournament that I have been trying to come and play for a number of years now but unfortunately I have never been able to fit it into my schedule until this year. It worked out nicely as I was in Shanghai the week before and it is only a short trip to Japan from there. I had heard great things about the tournament and the course for years so it was great to finally come and play it. To win was the icing on the cake!
I hadn’t really got any expectations for the week as I had putted poorly in Shanghai and so I wasn’t really expecting to come here and all of a sudden start holing putts. Although after a good session of putting practice on Tuesday I was feeling more comfortable on the greens. The first two days went reasonably well for me; I shot three under the first day and then followed it up with a round of four under for a two round total of seven under par. The first round was particularly pleasing as I didn’t play very well; I struggled off the tee all day but kept myself going by making a lot of good saves. Nearly every time that I hit it in the trees I managed to save par, which was huge as it is the sort of course that you can run up big numbers as the trees are quite dense. I was one under for the day with two holes to go (I was finishing on the 9th), then on the eighth hole I hit my five wood from the tee into the fairway bunker, from where I was left with a wedge to the green which I hit to twenty feet; I holed the putt to get me to two under par and then went on to birdie my last hole to finish with a round of three under par. I was delighted leaving the course as I felt that I had really got the best out of my round. What a difference finishing with two birdies makes! I had used my spare driver the first day as it has a lower loft and I felt that it would be better for keeping the ball below the tree line but I struggled with it a bit. I found it hard to shape it and so I went back to my regular 9.5 degree driver for the rest of the week. On Friday I played a bit better and shot four under to get me into second place behind Tiger. It meant that I would be playing with him for the third round.
In Japan they always play the four rounds in three balls and so I was in the final three ball with Tiger and Ian Poulter. The first two days that we had were perfect weather for golf, a nice temperature and a little bit of wind, but Saturday was a miserable day. It was raining when I got up and unfortunately it never stopped raining all day. It was a very tough day for golf as it was very wet and a little cold. However it wasn’t affecting my early play. I birdied the first by hitting my sand wedge stiff and went on to make two more birdies in the next four holes to get me to 10 under par. It was all feeling very easy! I made a great par on the 7th - I drove it in the trees left and tried to make it to the green with my second but I caught a tree and it ended up 145 yards short and in the middle of the fairway, from here I hit a nine iron to 6 feet and then holed. While I was doing this Tiger was making a double bogey. On the 8th I tried to hit a seven iron when really I should have hit a six, it came up short in the bunker, plugged and cost me a bogey. Another bogey on the tenth brought me back to one under for the day, it was becoming a bit of a struggle now but I kept plugging away and grinding out pars until I bogied the 15th and the 16th to put me to one over for the round. I parred the 17th and 18th to finish in 6 under for the three rounds. I was leading on my own going down the 18th but Tiger made a fantastic birdie after hitting a five wood to eight feet for his third. It meant that we were tied on 6 under going into the final round and two clear of third place, Shingo Katayama.
The final round didn’t really start as I would have like it; I made three pars and then bogied the par five 4th after hitting it in the rough right off the tee. Tiger and Shingo started well and were moving away from me. Tiger was eight under to my five and Shingo was seven under. I kept plodding along, not panicking and just kept doing my thing. I parred my way through the rest of the holes on the front nine. Tiger did the same but Shingo made a double bogey on the 8th hole after getting plugged in the greenside trap. At this stage Tiger was three clear of Shingo and I and he began to play a more defensive game, hitting it to the middle of the greens and not really taking on many pins. He did take one on though, the eleventh where he hit an eight iron stiff but I managed to do the same for my first birdie of the day. At this stage I was still three behind on six under. On the twelfth I pulled my drive into the trees but again I managed to make par by chipping and putting. It was from here in that I made my comeback. The 13th is a driveable par four. Tiger laid up with an iron and I went for the green; I ended up just left off the green but with a fairly straight forward chip and putt, which I managed, and Tiger made a par. I was now two behind, still a long way with only five holes to play. We both parred the 14th and 15th. On the 16th you can hit driver over two traps and leave you with a sand wedge to the green or lay it up and hit an eight or nine iron. I hit driver but pushed it into the right rough. Tiger laid it up again and hit his second to forty feet. I got a very bad lie but as it was only a sand wedge that I was hitting I was able to get it to the green. I hit it to 15 feet and holed for my third birdie of the day. Tiger three putted to put me in a tie for the lead with him going to the seventeenth. The 17th is a good par three. I hit a six iron to 10 feet and Tiger missed the green left which was a terrible position as the pin was on the left; however he hit a very good chip to two feet and made par. I had a run at my putt and left myself with four footer for par, which I managed to get in somehow, I felt I had hit a terrible putt!
Down the 18th we both made birdies to force a play-off; mine after a bad tee shot got lucky and kicked out on to the fairway. From there I hit just short, chipped to six feet and holed ahead of Tiger. Tiger made an up and down from the left trap to join me on nine under. The play-off hole was the 18th again.
Tiger had the honour in the play-off and he pulled his drive into the left rough. I pushed mine into the right trap, which meant that neither of us could make the green in two. I laid mine up to 140 yards and he was about 100 yards away; I hit a soft nine iron to eight feet and Tiger pitched to six feet. It was my putt first and I managed to just sneak it in the right side of the hole and as expected Tiger holed his to keep it going.
The second time around Tiger pushed his drive into the bunker that I was in the first time and I pulled mine left into the trees. When I got to my ball it was lying beside one of the poles that holds up the rope for the spectators, I had to get a referee to take out the pole and flatten the mound that came up with it. I was right behind a forked tree and only 225 yards from the pin. I decided that it was worth hitting my hybrid club through the fork in the trunk and try to make the green. However it didn’t quite get up quick enough and it caught the trunk, but ended up 98 yards short of the pin in the rough on the left. Tiger had laid it up to a similar position as the first time around, from where he hit it to 12 feet left of the pin. I was left with a smooth sand wedge for my third shot which I hit exactly how I wanted too. It landed about four yards past the pin on the slope and spun back to 18 inches. Just the distance that you want as it is nearly impossible to miss! Tiger missed his putt and I tapped mine in to secure victory!
I was delighted to win and while it was great to beat Tiger I was happier with the way I kept going in the final round. When I went three behind I didn’t panic I just kept playing my own game and stuck to my game plan. There is no doubt that there is always more prestige in beating Tiger and also you tend to get better world ranking points - the win has lifted me to eighth in the world. The second half of my season has certainly been successful but the funny thing is that I haven’t played that much different to the first half, I have just had a better attitude. I am home for a few days before I head off on my last trip of the year. On Friday I head to Sun City for the Nedbank Challenge and then the World Cup in Barbados and finish off at Tigers event in L.A. But for the next few days I am going to savour my latest victory.