THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Graeme McDowell loves nothing better than to close out a long year with a win, and there's no better place for him to do that than Sherwood Country Club and the World Challenge.
Two years ago, he rallied from four shots behind in the final round and beat Tiger Woods in a playoff.
Staked to a two-shot lead on Sunday, McDowell never let Keegan Bradley catch up to him, and he protected his lead on the back nine with a pair of superb short-game shots to save par. One of them was a 75-foot lag putt to within tap-in range, critical for someone coming off a three-putt bogey. The other was a delicate chip behind the 17th green that the ball had to land in the rough, and then the fringe, or it would have raced by the cup. It stopped a fraction of an inch away from falling.
The only debate was which win was more meaningful.
"It's been a frustrating year," McDowell said. "This really caps off my season."
Two years ago, the win capped off an amazing year in which McDowell won his first major at the U.S. Open and delivered the winning point for Europe in the Ryder Cup. What made Sunday so special was the fact he hadn't won anything at all — nothing since that last World Challenge win two years ago.
"It's been too long. It's been a hell of a two years since I sat here as a winner," McDowell said after closing with a 4-under 68 for a three-shot win. "We all put winning up on a pedestal as the ultimate goal. We like to say that it's all about the process and going through the motions and trying to get better. But let's be honest. We all measure ourselves by the win. I can say that now.
"For two years, I've been saying things like 'processes' and 'trying to get better' and 'be patient' and 'hopefully the wins will come.' So I'm just relieved, really. I guess I got fed up with telling everybody that I'm playing well. I'm relieved to get across the line and take some nice confidence into this little off period I've got coming up."
McDowell was headed home to Northern Ireland for a few days before taking the rest of his 10-week break in his new house at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla.
He just finished building the house, which sits across from a lake instead of a golf course — "I get enough views of golf courses," he said. He just got engaged last month. He is opening a tavern outside the gates of his Orlando club called "Nona Blue."
There are a lot of changes in his life, and that's why it was important for him to get into that old habit of winning.
"I know I'm good enough," McDowell said. "I think when you know you're good enough, it gets even more frustrating."
The three-shot margin made it look easier than it was.
Sherwood was playing longer than ever in a light rain, giving an advantage to a big hitter like Bradley, not to mention tournament host Tiger Woods. Even when McDowell built a four-shot lead through 11 holes, a careless three-putt bogey on the 13th brought Bradley within two shots with five holes to play.
McDowell responded with the 75-foot putt that he lagged to tap-in range. From a precarious spot behind the 17th green, he had to land his chip in the rough and hope it would hop onto the fringe and not run too far by the hole. He pulled it off perfectly.
"It was an inch away from sticking in the fringe, and about 1-16th of an inch away from going in the hole," he said.
He made one last birdie he didn't need, extending his dominance at Sherwood. It was the 10th time in 12 rounds at Sherwood that McDowell has shot in the 60s, and he now has two wins and a runner-up finish in his three trips to the World Challenge. He finished on 17-under 271 and earned $1 million against the 18-man field.
Bradley, who was within one shot after a birdie on the fifth hole, closed with a 69. Bo Van Pelt had a 70 to finish third. Woods, the tournament host and five-time champion, was never in the picture. He didn't make birdie until the 13th hole and shot 71 to tie for fourth.
"Graeme really likes this place," Bradley said. "Just when I thought maybe I'd have a good chance, he'd hole a putt or hit a chip like he did on 17. He's a champion. I don't expect anything less out of him."
Woods, needing a fast start, was stuck in neutral. He failed to birdie the par 5s on the front nine and dropped a shot on the seventh hole when his flop shot below the green came out heavy. He didn't make his first birdie until the par-5 13th.
"I struggled with my game a little bit this week," said Woods, playing for the first time in five weeks. "I just managed myself well to get around in these conditions."
Van Pelt opened with two birdies and tried to hang around in contention on the back nine.
But this was a duel from the start, and Bradley never could get closer than one shot with his 18-foot birdie on the fifth hole. Two holes later, Bradley made bogey on the eighth and McDowell was back in command.
All three of his wins in America have come in the Golden State — twice at Sherwood, one up the coast at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open, and McDowell nearly added another one at Olympic Club this summer when he was runner-up in the U.S. Open.
The celebration was not restricted to Sherwood.
McDowell glanced at his watch and realized it was only about 11:30 p.m. back in Northern Ireland, when the bar would still be open. It's been a tradition of his when he wins to call the bar at his home golf clubs — Rathmore in Northern Ireland, Lake None in Florida — and open a tab for free drinks.
And now that he's building his own tavern?
"I think traditionally, it may be drinks on the house at Nona Blue when I win a tournament," he said. "So thankfully, it's not open yet. I'll save a few quid this time around."