2006: Woods still in driver’s seat

By Jeff Rude

San Diego

When last seen on grass, a worn-out Tiger Woods was beating, believe it or not, only one guy in his own 16-man Target tournament in December. That, of course, is about rare as raw meat. But so, so much in his life has changed since that you need a list.

He closed on a $38 million house in South Florida. He got a dog, a little collie. He turned 30. As such an old man, he put a 5-wood in play, a weapon he calls his “little senior club.” He also has new irons and a new 460cc, 8.5-degree SasQuatch driver. And he went 24 days without touching a club, his longest break ever, mainly to spend time with 73-year-old father Earl, who is battling cancer.

One man’s rust is another man’s refresher. Woods came to the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines feeling both. That he hit only one fairway in the first round hinted that he wasn’t quite in majors season form.

“It’s amazing when you take any kind of layoff how good you feel you hit it the first day,” Woods said. “The second day I’m like an 18-handicapper. But I needed that break. My body was a little beat up. I had some little knickknack things I needed to heal. The traveling and being in contention wore on me. It was nice to put the clubs away and just chill.”

One thing, however, hasn’t changed. He still seems to find a way to win – even when he doesn’t have his best stuff and no matter how long it takes. That was the case again as Woods made the Buick the fifth tournament he has won four times. His 47th PGA Tour victory would come in a playoff against Jose Maria Olazabal and rookie Nathan Green of Australia.

“Quite frankly I probably shouldn’t have been in the playoff,” Woods said.

But he got there partly because only two players in the final three threesomes broke par Sunday. He got there despite his substandard putting on the weekend. He made no putts longer than 8 feet on Saturday-Sunday. He three-putted three times (Nos. 4, 5 and 14) in the final round, on a day when 12 different players had at least a share of the lead and eight players were tied at the top.

But despite putting woes, he was able to forget and make an 8-footer for birdie on the last hole of regulation to get into the playoff. He won with a par on the second extra hole, No. 16, when Olazabal missed a slick, downhill 4-footer off the left lip.

Overtime success is nothing new, either. Woods is 9-1

in Tour playoffs and 12-1 worldwide. His last three victories have gone extra holes. Only Billy Mayfair has taken him down. That came at the 1998 Nissan Open.

“It’s nice he’s the only one,” Woods said, smiling.

So this doesn’t augur well for the Tour. Woods comes in stale and still wins his first start of a season for the fourth time. Then he announces he’s farther along than last year because his “laundry list” of necessary fixes is smaller.

Why Torrey Pines, site of the 2008 U.S. Open, hasn’t erected a statue of him yet is uncertain. He won the Junior World here at 15 and, in nine Buick showings, has nine top 10s. That would include eight top 5s, six top 3s and, of course, the four trophies.

“Nice place,” Woods said. “It’s been a great place for me. Not too many golf courses fit your eye. This does.”

Woods had a chance to win on the first playoff hole, but his 8-foot birdie attempt missed left. That is something you don’t see often. But his pleasure would only be deferred a few minutes, until Olazabal didn’t hit the right-to-left downhiller hard enough.

“To be honest, it doesn’t matter who beats you. I was pissed off. What the hell,” Olazabal said, drawing laughter. “He’s No. 1, but it pisses you off the same way.”

Olazabal nearly won despite not being able to hit a “straight shot with my irons” before leaving Spain. Others came close, too. Green had a two-shot lead after holing a 77-yard shot for eagle at 13, but he bogeyed two of the last four holes.

Third-round co-leader Sergio Garcia also finished two back despite a horrendous start. He not only bogeyed five of the first eight holes Sunday, he hit his ball into five bunkers and a corporate hospitality tent while doing so. He also hit a marshal with an errant shot on No. 2.

“I didn’t quite feel comfortable,” Garcia said after a 75.

In the end, only one person did. Golf’s No. 1 player.

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