DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Tiger Woods was at his best Sunday at the Memorial. He hit nearly every shot just the way he wanted, worked the gallery into a frenzy with one last charge over the final hour and left everyone buzzing — especially Jack Nicklaus — with a shot they will talk about for years.
Better yet was the timing of his 73rd win.
Woods tied Nicklaus for career PGA Tour victories at the tournament that Jack built. And the 14-time major champion suddenly looks equipped to resume his chase of another Nicklaus mark that is more significant — 18 major championships.
The U.S. Open starts in 11 days.
With a chip-in that even Woods called one of the toughest shots he ever made, he birdied three of his last four holes to close with a 5-under 67 and turn a two-shot deficit into a two-shot victory over Rory Sabbatini and fast-closing Andres Romero.
Coming off a two-putt birdie on the 15th, Woods hit 8-iron over the green at the par-3 16th and into an impossible lie. It was buried in deep rough, the pin 50 feet away along a ridge. Woods hit a full flop shot, hopeful to give himself a reasonable putt for par. Far more likely was the ball going short and down a slope away from the pin, or coming out too strong and rolling into the water.
No one was thinking birdie, not even Woods, until he took two steps and delivered an uppercut when the ball fell in the right side of the cup.
Nicklaus was gushing from the broadcast booth. “The most unbelievable, gutsy shot I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Under the circumstances — the circumstances being Tiger has been struggling — it was either fish or cut bait,” Nicklaus said later. “He had one place to land the ball. He’s playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he’s going to leave himself again a very difficult shot. If he hits it long, he’s going to probably lose the tournament. He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. Going in the hole was a bonus. But what a shot!
“I don’t think under the circumstances I’ve ever seen a better shot.”
Woods, who finished at 9-under 279, won the Memorial for the fifth time. At age 36, he is 10 years younger than Nicklaus when the Golden Bear won his 73rd tournament at the 1986 Masters. Sam Snead holds the PGA Tour record with 82 wins.
It was vintage Woods at Muirfield Village, the fifth course where he has won at least five times. And it was the perfect way for him to end his worst stretch as a pro. After winning at Bay Hill in March, he tied for 40th in the Masters, missed the cut at Quail Hollow and tied for 40th at The Players Championship.
Asked about the endless chatter about whether his game is back, Woods eventually sighed and said, “I’ll let you guys figure that out.”
Woods won for the second time this year and moved to No. 4 in the world.
This was more impressive than his five-shot win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March, when he had a one-shot lead going into the final round on a course where he could get by with par. The Memorial required much more work, especially when he had to go after birdies on the back nine.
And that’s what he did.
Woods reached the par-5 15th into the wind in two shots to set up a two-putt birdie and get within one shot of Sabbatini. But just like that, it looked as if his chances were over when his 8-iron bounded through the green and into a tough lie behind the green.
“I had to take a cut at it because the lie wasn’t as great,” he said. “I went for it. I pulled it off. And for it to land as soft as it did was kind of a surprise, because it was baked out and it was also running away from me. It just fell in. I didn’t think it was going to get there at one point.”
Sabbatini didn’t need to see it. He was on the 15th green, scrambling for par, when Muirfield Village shook with the loudest roar of the day.
“I knew something was going on up in front,” said Sabbatini, who shot 72. “I was really just trying to focus on my own game, and the only thing I could do was control what I was doing. I knew that I was going to have to put a good number up there.”
The South African hit his tee shot into the right bunker on the 16th, the third-hardest hole Sunday that yielded only four birdies, and then blasted out to just inside 15 feet and took bogey to fall one behind.
That was all Woods needed.
From the middle of the 18th fairway, with Nicklaus watching from behind the green, Woods hit 9-iron to the perfect spot on the back of the green, where it caught the slope and rolled to just inside 10 feet for the final birdie of a masterful finish.
Fittingly, Woods raised the putter in his left hand before the fall disappeared into the cup. That was the pose Nicklaus struck so often in his career, and this win was all about Woods and Nicklaus.
It was a hard-luck finish for Sabbatini, who has a long history with Woods for brazen comments that always backfire on him. He didn’t get many breaks, but kept his patience throughout the final round and still had a chance until he failed to take advantage of a big drive on the 17th, having to save par from a bunker.
Spencer Levin, who had a one-shot lead going into the final round, lost the lead to Sabbatini with a two-shot swing on the par-3 12th, then took double bogey on the next hole to fall from contention. He closed with a 75, the same score he shot in the final round at Phoenix when he had a six-shot lead.
That was nothing compared with Rickie Fowler, who played in the second-to-last group with Woods to help generate an enormous gallery. Fowler opened with a birdie, and his day fell apart after that. With a double bogey on the last hole, he closed with an 84. The only consolation for Fowler was getting a front-row seat to a comeback remarkable even by Woods’ standards — especially the chip-in on the 16th. Fowler said a good shot would have been anywhere around 10 feet.
“It came out perfect, landed right on the crown of that ridge there, and the rest is history,” Fowler said. “I mean, he loves being in the moment, and that’s where he kind of gets down, focuses and hits those shots. It was fun to see.”
It was the second time this year Woods has won in his final tuneup before a major. He won Bay Hill, but then tied for 40th at the Masters. The U.S. Open at Olympic Club starts on June 14, and Woods would be quite happy to take the game he had Sunday to San Francisco.
“That was some good stuff out there,” Woods said. “I never really missed a shot today.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.