La Jolla, Calif.
Looking more comfortable each day, Tiger Woods fought through the rust of a two-month sabbatical, the aftereffects of knee surgery and first-round struggles off the tee to win the Buick Invitational by four strokes Feb. 16.
The end results: The knee feels fine, his game is as good as ever and Tiger Woods can still beat Phil Mickelson with a tournament on the line.
Woods proved all that with his 16-under-par 272 that left him four shots ahead of PGA Tour rookie Carl Pettersson, five in front of Brad Faxon and six in front of Mickelson, Briny Baird and Arron Oberholser.
“I missed competing,” Woods said. “Having to hit a golf shot that matters, that gives me a big rush. I really missed that.”
Woods led Faxon by one shot and Mickelson by two heading into a final- round pairing that was made for TV.
Yes, Mickelson and Woods had publicly patched their differences earlier in the week after Mickelson’s much-publicized barb about Woods’ “inferior equipment,” but still the possibilities for a final-round, head-to-head duel had the galleries abuzz.
It marked the first time they had played together in the final group since the 2001 Masters, and Mickelson had been the last to overcome Woods – at the 2000 Tour Championship – when Woods had at least a share of the lead going into the final day. (Woods, by the way, is now 27-2 in that category after Sunday.)
“I guess it is ironic,” Woods said of the final-round pairing.
Riveting, definitely not.
Woods made sure of that with three birdies on the first six holes, then clinched victory with a pair of 4-iron approaches that led to birdies on No. 11 (3 feet) and No. 15 (15 feet) for a final-round 68 that earned him $810,000. Mickelson, meanwhile, could get nothing going, parring his first 10 holes, then bogeying 11 and 12.
It was Woods’ first competition since early December, and early on, it showed – for exactly one round, a 2-under 70 in which the world’s top-ranked player hit only two of 14 fairways.
“I knew my driver would be the last club to come around,” Woods said. “It’s just timing, and a lot of trust.”
By the time the weekend rolled around, though, Woods had found his driver – he hit 9 of 14 fairways each of the last two rounds – along with the rest of his game. So much so that his competitors couldn’t tell he’d been gone.
“He looked like he’d been playing for weeks in a row,” Faxon said. “Every part of his game was on. It’s hard to imagine someone playing any better.”
Especially after two months off.